Portrait of an English Gentleman
Oil on panel
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard H. Rush, Class of 1937; P.962.132
This signed and dated portrait of a gentleman is among the earliest known works by the prolific English portrait-painter Cornelius Johnson. Although the date inscribed on it was previously misread as 1629, subsequent cleaning has revealed it to be 1620, which corresponds better with the sitter’s choice of fashion and the style and format of the painting within Johnson’s oeuvre.
Johnson was born in London in 1593; his family, of German origins, had recently migrated to England from Antwerp. Little is known of his early life, though his manner of painting makes it likely that he received at least some of his training in the Netherlands. His first known works are signed and dated 1619 and include a pair of three-quarter-length portraits thought to depict Sir Thomas and Lady Boothby (formerly with the Weiss Gallery, London), a headand- shoulders image titled Unknown Lady (Cleveland Museum of Art), and two head-and-shoulders portraits of an unknown elderly lady and gentleman (Lamport Hall Trust, Northants). The sitters in the Cleveland and Lamport Hall portraits are presented in fictive brown stone ovals that are very similar to the example in the present portrait. Johnson favored this format early on, and it echoes both contemporary portrait engravings and the look of English portrait miniatures at this time.
Unlike most other English artists, Johnson generally signed and dated his works. Other head-and-shoulders portraits from 1620, all in the same fictive brown stone oval format, include the following: Susanna Temple, later Lady Lister (Tate, London); Unknown Young Man, “aged 22” (Holburne Museum of Art, Bath); and Sir Alexander Temple, “aged 37” (Viscount Cobham, Hagley Hall, Worcester, and repetition at Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). The Lamport Hall, Holburne, Hagley, and Yale works all bear the sitter’s age inscribed in an identical italic script that is similar to the one used by Johnson for his signature. It is possible that the painting in the collection of the Hood Museum of Art may have been commissioned from Johnson by the same client as one or some of these other early head-and-shoulders portraits.
In Britain, Johnson painted portraits on every scale, from the miniature to the full-length. In December 1632 he was appointed “picture-drawer” to King Charles I, although the arrival in London of Flemish painter Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) in the same year may be the reason why Johnson seems to have received few actual royal commissions. In 1643, during the Civil War in Britain, Johnson migrated to the Low Countries, where he worked in Middleburg and Amsterdam before settling in Utrecht, where he died a prosperous man in 1661.
The early history of this interesting and attractive picture is unknown. It is not mentioned in the basic catalogue raisonné of Johnson’s works, published in 1922 by Alexander Finberg, nor is there any record of it in the photographic archive at the Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
Last Updated: 11/23/09