Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection: “The Countess of Exeter” by Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen

I’m happy to report that a lovely seventeenth century portrait is newly on view in the Renaissance galleries.

Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen (English, 1593–1661), The Countess of Exeter, ca. 1620. Oil on panel. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Catherine Jean Quirk M1989.68. Photo by John R. Glembin.
Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen (English, 1593–1661), The Countess of Exeter (detail), ca. 1620. Oil on panel. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Catherine Jean Quirk M1989.68. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

It’s always so exciting to get a painting out of storage! I’m happy to report that a lovely seventeenth century portrait is newly on view in the Renaissance galleries (Main Level S103). It has been carefully cleaned and looks marvelous.

The painter of this portrait, Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen (also known as Cornelius Johnson), was born in England to Dutch parents who had fled religious persecution. It is very likely that the son returned to the Netherlands to study painting. Around 1618, he established himself in London as a portrait painter. Van Ceulen’s output is amazing. His signed paintings alone number in the hundreds!

Our painting dates to around 1620 because it fits stylistically into Van Ceulen’s early career. In the 1620s, Van Ceulen set a great number of his portraits within an oval frame which is painted like a window. This type of framing technique gives greater visual interest to the portrait, making it look more three-dimensional.

It also mimics printed portraits of the time (see below), in which famous people were shown in ovals surrounded by ornamentation and inscriptions—even sober sitters like Van Ceulen’s saw themselves as important individuals. Many fashionable portraitists of the seventeenth century created portraits with an illusionistic oval surround. Just a few examples are Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641), Sir Peter Lely (Dutch, 1618–1680), and Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669).

Robert Nanteuil (French, 1623–1678), Melchoir Gillier, 1652. Engraving.Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase with funds from the Hockerman Charitable Trust through Print Forum M1992.212. Photo by John R. Glembin.

A date around 1620 is also appropriate for the clothing of the sitter. She wears a lace ruff that shows a transition between a cartwheel ruff (which was stiff and stuck out like in this portrait of Sir. Walter Ralegh) and a falling ruff (where the collar points down along the neck, as you can see here).

In addition, the lady in our portrait is decked out in expensive and fancy jewelry. She has a jeweled hair ornament with a feather set over her hair, which is pulled back into a bun. On her lace collar is a jewel, and although her dress appears to be relatively simple and dark, she wears a gold chain and brooch.

I mentioned before that Van Ceulen was painting portraits at the same time as Anthony van Dyck. But, where Van Dyck was dramatic and elegant, Van Ceulen was straightforward and conservative. This may have been because Van Ceulen was painting for the well-to-do in England, rather than the highest social circles. Van Ceulen’s clients are interested in an artist that can make a high quality likeness, not a stylish showpiece.

So who is the lovely lady in our painting? Well, that’s a good question.

We call this portrait The Countess of Exeter because there is an inscription in the lower left-hand corner that reads “The Right Honorable Countess of Exeter”.

That makes it easy, right? Not quite.

The woman who was Countess of Exeter in 1620 was Elizabeth Drury, the second wife of William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Exeter. This portrait of Elizabeth Drury is in the collection of Kenwood House in London.

A comparison of the two portraits shows some resemblance between the two women, but are they the same person? I’m not convinced. In any case, Elizabeth Drury was born in 1572. Since our painting dates to about 1620, Elizabeth Drury would have been about 48 when the painting was made. To me, she doesn’t look 48 years old!

On the other hand, the woman in the Kenwood portrait, which dates to around 1614, definitely looks like she could be in her 40’s.

Accordingly, the expert consensus has been that the inscription is not contemporary with the painting and was added at a later date. It very well could be wrong. This is just another example of an artwork that requires more research!

Catherine Sawinksi  headshot

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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