Lely was the preeminent English court portraitist in the second half of the seventeenth century, filling the vacancy left by Van Dyck’s early death. His likeness of the aristocratic Capel sisters, a superb example of Lely’s characteristic shimmering draperies and pearlescent flesh tones, pays tribute both to the sitters’ beauty and their accomplishments. Mary, on the left, would become a major patron of botanical research, while Elizabeth displays one of her own flower paintings on the right.
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Title:Mary Capel (1630–1715), Later Duchess of Beaufort, and Her Sister Elizabeth (1633–1678), Countess of Carnarvon
Artist:Sir Peter Lely (Pieter van der Faes) (British, Soest 1618–1680 London)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:51 1/4 x 67 in. (130.2 x 170.2 cm)
Credit Line:Bequest of Jacob Ruppert, 1939
Mary and Elizabeth Capel were the sisters of Arthur Capel (1632–1693), first Earl of Essex, who rebuilt and enlarged the house and gardens of the family seat, Cassiobury Park, beginning in 1677. This picture was installed at that time in the library along with other family portraits, eight by Lely, which remained in place until 1922, when the house and its contents were sold. Two more of those portraits are now in the Museum's collection: Sir Henry Capel by Lely (39.65.6) and George Capel, Viscount Malden, and Lady Elizabeth Capel by Reynolds (48.181).
Mary's first marriage was in 1648 to Henry Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, who died in 1654. In 1657 she married Henry Somerset, Lord Herbert. This portrait may have been painted on the occasion of her second marriage, when she would have been twenty-seven. Lord Herbert succeeded as third Marquess of Worcester in 1667 and was created Duke of Beaufort in 1682. The couple devoted themselves to enlarging Badminton House, his family estate in Gloucestershire, and to developing extensive walks and formal gardens modeled on those at Versailles. The duchess was especially interested in botany and propagated exotic plants. Her younger sister Elizabeth married Charles Dormer, second Earl of Carnarvon, in or before 1653. She was an amateur artist, and Lely shows her with a small picture of her own, a study of a tulip inscribed with her name under a coronet (Whinney and Millar 1957 and Millar 1963).
Lely’s Dutch training and earlier restraint here give way to the influence of the elegant court style of Van Dyck, by whom the younger artist was chiefly influenced. Lely’s model may have been Van Dyck’s portrait of the daughters of Viscount Savage (National Gallery, London), which was in the artist’s personal collection (Brown 1982). The Museum's painting is in notably good state and retains its original frame.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Inscription: Signed and inscribed: (lower left, on parapet) PL. [monogram]; (on flower painting): E Carnarvon / fecit
the sitters' brother, Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex, Cassiobury Park, Watford, Hertfordshire (until d. 1693); the Earls of Essex, Cassiobury Park (1693–1916); Algernon George de Vere Capell, 8th Earl of Essex, Cassiobury Park (1916–22; his sale, Knight, Frank & Rutley, Cassiobury Park, June 15, 1922, no. 708, as "Mary and Elizabeth Capell, daughters of Arthur, Lord Capell"); [Scott & Fowles, New York, until 1925; sold to Ruppert]; Colonel Jacob Ruppert, New York and Garrison, N.Y. (1925–d. 1939)
New York. University Club. October 13, 1948–March 20, 1949.
London. National Portrait Gallery. "Sir Peter Lely, 1616–80," November 17, 1978–March 18, 1979, no. 27.
New Haven. Yale Center for British Art. "Great British Paintings from American Collections: Holbein to Hockney," September 27–December 30, 2001, no. 4.
San Marino, Calif. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. "Great British Paintings from American Collections: Holbein to Hockney," February 3–May 5, 2002, no. 4.
George Vertue. Notebook entry. 1731 [published in "Vertue Note Books Volume IV" in Walpole Society 24 (1935–36), p. 17], mentions a half-length portrait of two ladies which he saw on a visit to Cassiobury in 1731—apparently this picture.
Hermann Warner Williams Jr. "The Bequest of Jacob Ruppert." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 34 (July 1939), pp. 166–67, ill., dates it shortly after 1660.
R. B. Beckett. Letter. April 21, 1948 [letter unlocated; transcript only], considers the Capel portraits "of course, very good".
R. B. Beckett. Letter. December 24, 1948 [letter unlocated; transcript only], dates it about 1660.
R. B. Beckett. Lely. London, 1951, pp. 12–13, 38, 70, no. 63, pl. 36, dates it soon after the marriage of Elizabeth, the younger sister, in about 1653.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 59.
Margaret Whinney and Oliver Millar. English Art, 1625-1714. Oxford, 1957, p. 281, observe that one of Elizabeth Capel's flower studies, signed and dated 1662, survives at Windsor.
Oliver Millar. The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen. London, 1963, text vol., p. 138, notes that there is a similarly signed flower study by the Countess in the Royal Collection (Kew; Hampton Court no. 1465).
Oliver Millar. Sir Peter Lely, 1618–80. Exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery. London, 1978, pp. 50–51, no. 27, ill., describes this painting and the double portrait of Lord and Lady Capel at the Yale Center for British Art [now in the National Portrait Gallery, London] as the finest in the set of Lely's Capel family portraits, and suggests a probable date of about 1658.
Christopher Brown. Van Dyck. Ithaca, N.Y., 1982, pp. 122–23, pl. 230, describes it as "clearly based on Van Dyckian models".
Zirka Zaremba Filipczak. "Reflections on Motifs in Van Dyck's Portraits." Anthony van Dyck. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1990, p. 64, suggests that Lely, although influenced by Van Dyck's "Dorothy Savage, Viscountess Andover, and Her Sister, Elizabeth, Lady Thimbleby" (National Gallery, London), returns to double portraits that simply juxtapose two sisters, as in our painting.
Richard Charlton-Jones. "Lely to Kneller, 1650–1723." The British Portrait, 1660–1960. Woodbridge, England, 1991, p. 81, observes that in our portrait the model is still Van Dyck but "the smooth, even finish . . . of the earlier 1650s [is] giving way to a more confident, open treatment".
Christopher Baker and Tom Henry. The National Gallery: Complete Illustrated Catalogue. London, 1995, p. 212.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 181, ill.
Katharine Baetjer. "British Portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Summer 1999), pp. 14, 17–20, ill. (color, overall and details), mentions that Elizabeth's identity is secured by the display of her own signed flower painting and that Mary's lack of a widow's veil indicates that she was painted after 1657, when she was already married to her second husband, Lord Seymour, later first Duke of Beaufort.
Sue Bennett. Five Centuries of Women & Gardens. Exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery. London, 2000, p. 37, ill. (color).
Julia Marciari Alexander inGreat British Paintings from American Collections: Holbein to Hockney. Exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. New Haven, 2001, pp. 55–57, no. 4, ill. (color), says the portrait epitomizes Lely's best work from the 1650s and early 1660s, and finds that it captures the individuality of his sitters and is "one of the finest Lelys currently in an American collection".
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 17–20, no. 7, ill. (color).
Old Master & British Paintings. Christie's, London. July 3, 2012, p. 240, under no. 58.
Old Masters Evening Sale. Sotheby's, London. December 10, 2020, p. 72, under no. 27.
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