PORTRAIT OF AN OFFICER c.1640 - CIRCLE OF CORNELIUS JOHNSON.
Painted on the eve of the Civil War, this atmospheric portrait of an officer captures a solemn moment during one of the most turbulent periods of English history.
The handling of this portrait compares well with the final portraits produced by Cornelius Johnson (1593-1661), before the artist left England during the outbreak of the Civil War in 1643.
Born in London to Flemish parents, Cornelius Johnson (also known as Cornelis van Ceulen) can be considered one of the most prolific portrait painters in early seventeenth century Britain. Although noted as one of the more conservative artists of the period, especially compared with the powerful Baroque portraits of Van Dyck, it would be untrue to assert that Johnson’s style did not evolve over his long career. His earlier portraits, the first dated to the late 1610s, demonstrate that the Johnson was content working in the highly polished stylised Elizabethan manner represented best by the works of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. However, it was during the 1630s and early 40s that Johnson’s style was maturing into a softer more painterly style. It was during the later 30s that the painter also began to break away from the very characteristic face pattern employed consistently during earlier decades. His earlier feathery and precise brush, which resonated particularly with the small scale almost miniaturist portraits he produced of Charles I’s family, eventually gave way to the naturalistic manner promoted by Italian and French artists. The use of canvas, rather than panel, also lends itself to the softer modulation of colour preferred by the greatest Italian painters of the sixteenth century.
This format of showing the head and shoulders of an armoured sitter became remarkably popular during the period, and was used constantly by the likes of the contemporary Dutch painter Gerard Honthorst. It is also undeniable that this painting also shares an affinity with the more direct and psychological portraits by the English artist William Dobson, painter to King Charles I at Oxford during this turbulent period. Malcolm Rogers, in the definitive exhibition catalogue on this English painter’s career, has shown that Dobson was happy to borrow compositional elements from Johnson’s work. Although this is more evident in portraits of female sitters, this portrait is a striking example of how close the pictures of these artists may appear.
In terms of composition and handling, this painting compares well to Johnson’s 1643 portrait of Sir William Waller in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s mood and style is also reflected in the so-called ‘Richard Cromwell’, given to Johnson, that sold in the Hertford Sale, Christie’s London 1 July 1921, lot 1. Falling into this compositional type, we can be sure that the painter of this portrait knew canvases like the ones mentioned above.
The armour featured within the painting is very typical of seventeenth century Dutch cuirassier harnesses, a fashion also seen in the portraits of the aforementioned Honthorst. This blackened armour, which feature very typically squared pauldrons decorated profusely with rivets, was imported into England and widely accepted amongst both Royal and aristocratic patrons during the seventeenth century. The darkness of the blackened steel is broken beautifully by a blue silk and golden braided sash worn just above the sitter’s waist, a fashion accessory often worn by officers. The relatively plain white collar too helps to frame the sitter’s smoothly rendered face, and ensure it stands out amongst the darker tones of the background and armour.
Attempts to identify the sitter have proven inconclusive. Despite this, the highly pensive and characterful rendering of this unknown officer resonates strongly with the tragic circumstances that this very generation of able young men found themselves embroiled in, we can only speculate as to the fate of this fresh faced officer…
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Canvas: 28 x 30", 58.5cm x 76.5cm.
Framed: 24" x 29, 61cm x 74cm.
Internal Ref: 00061