Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Does North Carolina Own the Most Beautiful Portrait of Mary Herbert Sidney Countess of Pembroke in the World?

Detail from Unknown Woman (NCMA.67.13.7) at the North Carolina Museum of Art
I believe this unknown woman kept in the British Collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art is either Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, or she is Mary Queen of Scots.   

The painting itself is stunning, a work worthy of a queen. In fact, the whole Elizabethan collection in North Carolina is incredible, and I strongly suspect many of the sitters are of royal blood. Some of them also appear to be world-famous explorers, but they are all currently unidentified.

This post will compare the unknown sitter to Mary Sidney Herbert, a fine poet and art patron whose contributions to the Elizabethan zeitgeist cannot be overstated. Some scholars claim she wrote the works of Shakespeare. 

And here is a link to my post comparing this unknown sitter to Mary Queen of Scots. 

Obviously all the images here are used for educational purposes.
Above: NCMA Unknown & Mary Sidney by Nicholas Hilliard (NPG London 5994)
Above: Unknown (NCMA) & Mary Sidney-Stipple_engraving_Wellcome_V0004586
Above left to right: Mary Sidney by Gheeraerts the Younger (image from artnet.com); Unknown (NCMA); &Mary_Sidney-Stipple_engraving_image via Wellcome_V0004586
Above: NPG D27993 Mary Sidney after Simon de Passe & Unknown (NCMA)
I want to add this close-up of the unknown woman's hands. Look at the detail of those fingers and veins. Look at how long her middle finger is. Now go back and compare them to the hands of Mary Sidney. And, yes, I wish I had larger images to work from, but not all museums are as generous as the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Above: details of two hands from NCMA's Unknown Woman.
This NCMA portrait is something special. Just beautifully rendered with an incredible eye for color and costume. I tend to avoid the word exquisite, but it seems appropriate here. I'm tempted to guess that Cornelis Ketel painted their picture, but I'm certainly no expert.
Above: detail hands Mary Sidney by Gheeraerts the Younger (image from artnet.com)
Above: detail hand from NPG D27993 Mary Sidney after Simon de Passe
The British Collection at the NCMA is one of the great hidden gems of Elizabethan art. These painting are mind-blowingly beautiful. 
Above: Mary Sidney, artist unknown, image from alchetron.com (left) & Unknown (NCMA)
There is one portrait, often misidentified as Mary Sidney, that shows a woman now believed to be Mary Scudamore in a very similar costume, but, although there are similarities, the facial features don't seem to match up, as you can see below.
 Above: Called Mary Scudamore by Gheeraerts the Younger (left, NPG64, London) an our unknown woman NCMA 

There are, I should mention, at least still existing portraits that show Mary Herbert wearing the French hood seen in the portrait of the unknown woman.
 Above: Mary Sideny from the Fricke Collection (via Pin-interest)
Below: Mary Sidney by James Tuck (after Harding) via Wikimedia

Note: There is another woman the sitter greatly resembles. Anyone who is a fan of Mary Queen of Scots (see below image) will recognize her trademark outfit being worn by the unknown woman in North Carolina. I will put up another post soon exploring the possibility that this unknown woman might be Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary Queen of Scots by Nicholas Hilliard (image via Bridgeman Images)

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