Elizabeth I portraits reign at the Yale Center for British Art

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The earliest known full-length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I being installed on the fourth floor of the YCBA
The earliest known full-length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was recently installed on the fourth floor of the Yale Center for British Art. The painting, which dates to circa 1567, is on loan from a private collection and will be on exhibit at the YCBA through next fall. (Photo credit: Edward Town, Yale Center for British Art.)

The Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) has a royal guest. Queen Elizabeth I is holding court on the museum’s fourth floor.

The earliest full-length portrait of the iconic English monarch, painted circa 1567, is on view at the museum until next fall, when it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition on Tudor art. This is the first time the portrait, on loan from a private collection, has been publicly displayed in the United States. 

We’re delighted to share this amazing painting,” said Ed Town, the YCBA’s head of collections information and access, who helped arrange the loan. “We’re also excited for the opportunity to study the portrait, as it contains a series of enigmas. Questions remain about when it was made and who painted it.”

The portrait depicts Elizabeth (1533-1603), whose reign overlapped with much of William Shakespeare’s life and career, appearing self-possessed in royal finery. She wears an elaborately embroidered red gown and is bedecked in jewels, including a large diamond at her midriff and a string of pearls cinched at her waist that descends down the front of her dress. Her right hand rests on the knob of a gold chair. In her fingers she grasps a red carnation, symbolizing love. An intricately patterned hanging of cloth of gold behind her bears the English coat of arms. The artist used gilding to imitate the gold fabric, Town said.  

Currently attributed to English portrait painter George Gower (1540-1596), the portrait of Elizabeth was forgotten until it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in 2007. The painting was conserved at the time and some analysis was performed on it, but the work has never been studied using the technology now available at Yale, said Town, who is also assistant curator of early modern art.

The painting, which measures about 6’5” by 4’7”, will be analyzed with a macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) scanner, which will provide insight about its elemental composition and expose details obscured by damage and dirt or covered by layers of paint. Yale’s XRF scanner is shared among its museums. Curators expect the analysis of the full-length portrait to occur in the spring.

Town noted two spots where scanning should yield interesting results: A cartouche on the gold hanging underneath the coat of arms appears to contain a date, but it is illegible. (The painting is currently dated circa 1567.) An inscription on the painting’s lower right is scratched out.

We’re expecting some exciting revelations,” said Town, who is engaged with YCBA senior conservator Jessica David in a long-term project of Tudor-era portraits, both in the YCBA’s collection and in institutions and private collections in the United States and overseas.

At Yale, the painting hangs between a circa 1565 portrait of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester and the queen’s favorite and oft-jilted suitor, and a 1567 portrait of an unnamed young woman whose red dress bears a close resemblance to Elizabeth’s gown. 

We don’t know who she is, but she must have been a young woman who waited on the queen or was part of the royal household,” he said.

The full-length portrait shares the bay with a bust portrait of Elizabeth I displayed on an adjacent wall, which is also on loan from a private collection. Like its full-length neighbor, the bust portrait dates to about 1567 — a time when the queen was negotiating a potential marriage to the Archduke of Austria, Charles II.    

bust portrait of Elizabeth
It’s possible that English diplomats used this bust portrait of Elizabeth I, on view at the YCBA, during failed negotiations seeking the marriage of Elizabeth and Charles II, the Archduke of Austria. (Photo courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.)

Elizabeth was reluctant to have her portrait made early in her reign, which occurred during a period of political and religious strife in England as the country seesawed between Catholicism and Protestantism. Early portraits of her are drab and considered weak likenesses. The bust portrait, also attributed to George Gower, is likely one of the first attempts to portray her accurately from life, Town said.

An accurate likeness was important, not only for prestige, but also because Elizabeth was on the international marriage market,” Town said. “She was under tremendous pressure to marry and a number of suitors had come forward. She was the last of the Tudors, and unless she married, the dynasty would end.”

As in the full-length portrait, Elizabeth appears regal and confident in the bust portrait, wearing a ruffled collar and jewels. The artist took pains to capture the translucency of Elizabeth’s skin, a feature that was highly prized at the time, and the bluish veins of her forehead.

She is showing off her blue blood,” Town said. 

The bust portrait surfaced in Austro-Hungary in the mid- to late-19th century when an English collector acquired it, suggesting that it was used during the marriage negotiations with the archduke, Town explained. 

The painting, which had not been publicly displayed since 1933, has been selected for inclusion in a British Library exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots about a year from now.

The two portraits of Elizabeth I share gallery space on the YCBA’s fourth floor with other Tudor-era portraits.
The two portraits of Elizabeth I share gallery space on the YCBA’s fourth floor with other Tudor-era portraits. (Photo credit: Ronnie Rysz, Yale Center for British Art.)

The Yale Center for British Art is located at 1080 Chapel St. in New Haven. Admission is free. Hours and directions are available on the YCBA’s website.