Thursday, April 1, 2010

Growing Old Gracefully (and Powerfully)

Thursday, April 1, 2010
Susan reports:

Commenting on a recent blog, reader JennyGirl asked if the ladies on my two book covers (far right) were related. They're not, not even remotely. But for anyone glancing at a group of 17th c. ladies by Sir Peter Lely, (1618-1680) THE portraitist of his time, there is, ahem, a striking similarity.

Much of this is because the ladies wanted to be shown in the fashionable "look" of the time (think of the interchangeable blond starlets of today), and Sir Peter happily obliged. He wasn't wildly successful for nothing. But Sir Peter could certainly paint more than one kind of face, and his two portraits of Elizabeth Maitland, Duchess of Lauderdale (1626-1698) prove it.

In an era of indolent brunette beauties, Elizabeth was unique. She was well-educated, assertive, outspoken, and ambitious, and a countess in her own right. You didn't mess with Bess. During her long life, she studied philosophy, married twice and bore eleven children, served as a Royalist spy during the Civil War, acted as a fierce behind-the-scenes politician on behalf of her husbands, and conducted a love affair considered especially shocking because she was in her forties! Here's an overview of her story.

Elizabeth wasn't conventionally beautiful by the languid standards of the day. Her first portrait by Sir Peter, painted when she was about 22 in 1648 (above left), shows her famously auburn hair (faulted for being "deep coullerd") and sandy brows and lashes. Unconventional or not, she was widely regarded as a great beauty, and praised as well for her wit.

When Sir Peter painted her the last time (above right), between 1675-80, she was in her fifties – absolutely ancient in the 17th c. – yet still confident enough in her appearance not to have herself idealized, but painted as she was.

Some historians simply can't accept this, however, and interpret this portrait as a memento mori, one of those cheerless warnings of mortality and impending death. I don't agree. To me the duchess seems quite content in her own skin and that swath of scarlet silk. She's proud of whom she has become, not who she wishes she still were.

Above: Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1648, Victoria & Albert Museum (Ham House)
Below: Lady Elizabeth Maitland, Countess of Dysart, Duchess of Lauderdale, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1680, Victoria & Albert Museum (Ham House)

11 comments:

Miss_Tami_Lee said...

Lovely interpretation! I prefer it much more over the morbid momento mori explanation

Rowenna said...

What a fascinating woman! Thanks for sharing her story--and her courage to stand out from the crowd! The second portrait a memento mori? Rather an unconvincing one, if so--she still looks lovely, intelligent, and quite content!

Monica Burns said...

I like her second portrait better. The first one I thought she was in her mid to late 30s! And if she was considered beautiful, I need to learn how to time travel and men worship me!!! LOL

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Tammi Lee and Rowenna, I'm not buying the momento mori thing, either. Just seems a little too convenient an explanation for what's a very rare portrait of an older lady. I mean, come on: as soon as a lady's passed her twenty-fifth birthday or so she's supposed to think only of death?

Monica, I agree with you -- I read the praise of her beauty, and that first portrait doesn't exactly deliver. *g* I have to think she had so much personality that that made her seem more attractive than her features indicate.

Or maybe the men were just too scared to say anything else. I like the description of her by Dr. Burnet who claimed she was a "violent" friend, and even more violent enemy. I think he means violence as passionate and intense, but still--!

Jenny Girl said...

I agree with your thoughts on the second portrait. Women who wear scarlett and then have a portrait done must be content in their own skin. I think women who like to red in general are pretty self confident. It's just one of those colors that says, "Hello I'm here"
I'm going to read up on this Countess.
Glad to have provided fodder for a post!
And, as always, thanks for my daily dose of knowledge :)

Roberta said...

I love that second painting. You can tell she's a Queen Bee. No woman who is thinking about death wears red satin and pearls in their hair. Bet those historians are male.

nightsmusic said...

To me, she looks more like a startled rabbit in the first picture, but in the second. Magnificent! It takes a woman who is very sure of herself to wear something like that at what would have been called "her age" and it's wonderfully refreshing.

Then again, red is a power color and she was obviously one powerful lady.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Red WAS a major power color, worn by kings, high clerics, generals and admirals and the like. Very few ladies are shown in red. Not because of "harlot in scarlet" connotation -- that's later -- but because it's seen as masculine; women, of course, aren't supposed to be powerful.

Another powerful lady in a red gown is the portrait of Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough, that's on the cover of my first historical novel, DUCHESS. FYI, here's the link to a blog I wrote about that painting and its symbolism:

http://susanhollowayscott.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a fascinating woman. Why has no one written a novel or a biography of her I wonder?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Elizabeth Kerri, I've wondered why there hasn't been anything much written about her, either. It could well be because she was so closely linked with her second husband, the Duke of Lauderdale, who was a pretty unsavory character:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Maitland,_1st_Duke_of_Lauderdale

Susan Holloway Scott said...
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