Skip to content

Jacobean portraiture

Robert Peake the Elder and portraiture in England

Robert Peake the Elder (c1551 – c1619) was the preeminent painter of the early Jacobean court. Already an established portraitist during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Peake was appointed as Prince Henry’s principal painter in 1604. The artist made his most innovative works under Henry’s patronage, reflecting the optimism and hope for the future that the prince embodied.

Peake depicted the young prince in various guises: whether enjoying the noble sport of hunting – such as in the painting now in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art – or cutting a fashionable figure – as in the portrait exhibited here.

Henry’s public image, cultivated by advisors and portrayed by Peake, was that of an athletic, military and learned ideal prince. In 1607, Peake became a serjeant painter to King James – the most senior official role for a court artist. He painted all members of the royal family, including Henry and Elizabeth’s younger brother Charles who later became king.

The art of portraiture in the early 1600s

Portraiture was the dominant genre of painting in the Jacobean era. Full-length portraits, like those featured here, were the most elaborate and expensive option. Replicas and bust- or waist-length versions were often made by the artist or their assistants as demand required.

At the opposite end of the scale, but equally important, were miniatures. These tiny but painstakingly detailed portraits made popular gifts. Isaac Oliver was Henry’s primary miniaturist, depicting him in both the Elizabethan manner – as in this portrait in the Royal Collection – and in a newer, Italian-influenced style, posed in profile and dressed as an ancient Roman general – as in this portrait in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

During this time, royal portraits were rarely taken from life. A painter might have one brief sitting to determine a likeness, and then develop a facial type that could be repeated across portraits for several years. This explains the similarity of many paintings of the Jacobean royal family. Their elongated faces and fine features also conformed to contemporary notions of beauty and suggested a strong dynasty through familial resemblance.

Henry and Elizabeth as patrons of the arts

Portraiture was part of a larger program of cultural patronage and royal image-making in the Jacobean court. Henry was a particularly active and innovative collector and patron. With Peake and Oliver as his principal painters, he also counted architect Inigo Jones, engineer Salomon de Caus, poet Ben Jonson, and many others in his service.

Princess Elizabeth’s independent patronage of the arts came mostly during her exile in The Hague (1621–62). There, under the protection of the Prince and Princess of Orange, she sponsored masques (theatrical balls), ballet and painting. Her chief portraitists were the Dutchmen Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1566–1641) and Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), whose works were quite different to the sharply stylised, decorative English portraits of Elizabeth’s youth.

See portrait by Van Mierevelt in National Portrait Gallery

See portrait by Van Honthorst in National Portrait Gallery

Questions and activities

  • What is a commissioned portrait and how does it differ from making your own artistic choices? What would the serjeant painter such as Peake need to consider when creating an artwork of the royal family? Discuss the role of the artist and the sitter in this traditional approach to portrait painting.
  • Read about Jacobean portraiture. How has portraiture changed in terms of technique and approach to subject since the 1600s? Choose a contemporary royal portrait and compare it to one from the Jacobean period. Which do you prefer and why?
  • Compare the various portraits of Henry and/or Elizabeth mentioned here. What messages do they send about the subject? Imagine how audiences of the time would have reacted to these images.