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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Elizabethan England

Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII (r. 1509–47) and Anne Boleyn (ca. 1507–1536), ascended to the throne as queen of England (r. 1558–1603) with a fine balance of vigor and restraint that brought with it the official establishment of Protestantism in the Church of England (1558); the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588); domestic peace in a previously divided country; and a flourishing environment for the humanities. Elizabeth I’s admiration for the arts, along with England’s economic buoyancy during her reign, provided ripe conditions for the production of enduring hallmarks in the visual, decorative, and performing arts.

During the age of Elizabeth, painting was dominated by portraiture, particularly in the form of miniatures, while elaborate textiles and embroidery prevailed in the decorative arts, and sculpture found its place within the confines of tomb and architectural decoration. Elizabeth I’s favored court painter, the Englishman Nicholas Hilliard (ca. 1547–1619), is best known for his miniature paintings. Following the tradition associated with Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543), Hilliard’s style emphasized distinctive line and reduced shadow. His Portrait of a Young Man, Probably Robert Devereux (1566–1601), Second Earl of Essex (35.89.4), delicately portrays the sitter with extraordinary attention to intricate patterning and fine line representing the precious, jewel-like objects sought after in Elizabethan England. Intended for private viewing, portrait miniatures were highly personal and intimate objects that often depicted lovers or mistresses. Isaac Oliver (ca. 1565–1617) studied under Hilliard, and together they became influential painters of miniature portraits.

Although painters of miniatures were en vogue with Elizabeth I, artists such as Robert Peake the Elder (ca. 1551–1619), Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Flemish, 1561–1635/36), John de Critz (before 1551–1642), and George Gower (1540–1596) also received commissions from the Crown, employing mild variations of the style developed by Hilliard and Oliver. In Henry Frederick (1594–1612), Prince of Wales, with Sir John Harington (1592–1614), in the Hunting Field (44.27), Peake applies his light palette to a hunting scene in a highly decorative, patterned, and relatively flat format. Knowledgeable about European Mannerism and familiar with the artistic trends of the School of Fontainebleau, these artists made large-scale, full-length paintings that portray the noble class in richly decorative costumes with armor, embroidery, ruffs, hunting gear, weapons, and lace.

In the decorative arts, demand for domestic silver significantly increased during the mid-sixteenth century because of rapid growth in population and subsequent expansion of the middle and upper classes. The Museum’s silver salt (52.134.a-e), characteristic of Elizabethan plate, is decorated with a melody of embossed sculptural vegetal forms, fruit, grotesque figures, and strapwork, topped with a figure finial to help vertically emphasize its placement on a table. These intricate designs of foliage and patterning were also applied to suits of armor (32.130.6) and domestic textiles, exemplified by the Metropolitan’s purse (1986.300.1), which is embroidered with colored silks and threads of gold and silver.