The Politics of Portraiture: Oliver Cromwell and the Plain Style

By Knoppers, Laura Lunger | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Portraiture: Oliver Cromwell and the Plain Style


Knoppers, Laura Lunger, Renaissance Quarterly


Some time in the 1650s, an unknown engraver executed a double portrait of Oliver Cromwell and his wife, Elizabeth [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The couple face the viewer while holding a symbolic laurel wreath of victory. However, Oliver is not dressed in military attire, but simply if elegantly with a mantle over a simple shirt with plain collar and cuffs. Elizabeth is dressed in the fashion of the day, with a pearl necklace, pendant, and earrings and a dress with a low rounded neckline, short-waisted bodice, and loose elbow sleeves. In the background are elegant folds of drapery and a classical pillar.

What any student of art history recognizes, of course, is that this engraving is based on earlier paintings, not of Oliver Cromwell, but of Charles I. The composition of the dual figures with the laurel wreath was first executed c. 1630-32 by Daniel Mytens [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] and later by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, shown here in a 1634 engraving [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED].(1) In both the Mytens and the Van Dyck on the same theme, the king and queen are shown half-length, holding symbolic tokens. Such portraits have been widely viewed as epitomizing cavalier culture, the grace and elegance of the Caroline court, and the majesty of divine right monarchy.

What then can be said of the Cromwellian imitation? Although this engraving has not, to my knowledge, been reproduced by modern scholars, similar examples have been used to dismiss Cromwellian portraiture as an inept aping of monarchical forms.(2) An influential early account by Margaret Whinney and Oliver Millar characterized Robert Walker, an early painter of Cromwell, as showing "the most slavish dependence on Van Dyck by an English painter";(3) according to the authors, Walker was original only in what was wrong with his paintings - his "dry and impersonal use of paint and his lack of any feeling for colour" and his "limp lay-figures against pedestrian backgrounds."(4) Later art historians have echoed this sentiment, viewing the portraiture as wholly derivitive of monarchical forms.(5) Although David Piper's seminal 1958 study looked at the "face itself of Cromwell, warts and all,"(6) Piper's more extended concern was with "the chase of the crown after Cromwell,"(7) ending with the apparent merging of protectoral and monarchical iconography. Since the publication of Piper's study forty years ago, Cromwellian portraiture has been almost entirely neglected by art historians, historians, and literary critics alike.(8)

Yet given the fuller range of Cromwellian portraits and engravings now available, and the extensive work that has been done on monarchical portraiture and representation more broadly, the dismissal of Cromwellian portraiture calls for reevaluation.(9) I shall argue that the differences between Cromwellian images and those of the monarchy are less inept and more purposeful than has hitherto been recognized. Rather than simply mimicking monarchical forms, Cromwellian portraiture increasingly reflected the character - and contradictions - of Cromwell's own plain style. Art and politics intermingled: appropriating and revising monarchical and, in particular, Caroline iconography, Cromwellian portraiture developed a plain-style aesthetic that reflected a new mode of piety and power.

Closer comparison of the Caroline double portraits and the Cromwellian engraving reveals not only blatant borrowing, but important revision. The clothing of the portraits is especially significant.(10) Charles and Henrietta dress in accordance with the wealth and status of the monarchy. Mytens's Charles is fashionably attired in a highly ornate doublet with wings and false hanging sleeves. The breast of the doublet is decoratively slashed to match the doublet sleeves. Charles wears a standing-falling ruff and his lesser George medallion. His long hair, brushed up moustache, and pointed beard also set the standard for fashion. …

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