Sunday, December 15, 2019

Does the Lost Portrait of Sir Philip Sidney by the Italian Master Veronese Now Reside in North Carolina?

British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, ca. 1585–90. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, 1967 (NCMA 67.13.8)

British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, ca. 1585–90. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, 1967 (NCMA 67.13.8)

British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, ca. 1585–90. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, 1967 (NCMA 67.13.8)

British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, ca. 1585–90. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, 1967 (NCMA 67.13.8)

 Above: North Carolina Museum of Art, British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate (NCMA 67.13.8). The museum states that the inscription was a later addition to the portrait and is incorrect.

British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, ca. 1585–90. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, 1967 (NCMA 67.13.8)

British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, ca. 1585–90. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc, 1967 (NCMA 67.13.8)


In 1574 Sir Philip Sidney had his portrait painted by the Italian master Paolo Veronese. The picture was then shipped to Sidney's mentor the diplomat Hubert Languet in Antwerp. Languet was infatuated with Sidney and had pleaded for such a portrait. Upon receiving the portrait, Languet wrote to the nineteen-year-old Sidney and observed, "The features are very well depicted, it looks far more youthful than it should be. You probably looked like this at twelve or thirteen." Languet also mentioned that his friend "Master Vulcobius is so struck by its elegance that he is looking for an artist to copy it. The painter has represented you sad and thoughtful."

It's also interesting that Languet initially objected that the portrait didn't resemble Philip. "Rather than representing you, it seems to be someone resembling you; at first I thought it was your brother." It took a year before Languet grew to love the portrait and wrote Sidney to apologize at how he had "thought little of the portrait you gave me, and barely gave you thanks for such a beautiful present."

The above information is recorded in Alan Stewart's excellent biography Philip Sidney: A Double Life. Stewart suggests it was this Veronese portrait of Sidney that the diplomat Daniel Rogers fawned over after having visited Languet in 1577. Rogers gushed that "the Divine Youth" Sidney had been painted in a "unique manner" and noted how the painter had "spread this rosy charm lightly over your face." Rogers also notes the "soft down" over the cheeks, the "enlivened forehead," and the eyes "with radiant beams."   
Above: the unknown youth (left) and a portrait at Penshurst Place in Kent said to be by Mark Gerrard (very likely Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger) depicting Sir Philip Sidney and his younger brother Robert. Below: close up of the unknown youth (left) and young Sir Philip Sidney.

The Youth in the North Carolina portrait is certainly "a divine youth," decked out, spear in hand, as a young Mars. Interestingly, the engraving on his breast plate appears to represent Mercury as its sitter is wearing a feathered helmet and clasping a caduceus. Roger's earlier description of the painter spreading his rosy charms across the face might hint to the sunburn showing on the cheeks of the unknown youth.  

Stewart also records John Aubrey's description of Sidney as having hair more amber than red. "If I were to find fault in it," Aubrey commented about Sidney's face, "methinks 'tis not masculine enough."

above: (left) unknown NC youth; (right) portrait miniature Called Sir Philip Sidney (Victoria & Albert Museum painted by Isaac Oliver or After Oliver)
 Above: unknown youth (NCMA, left) and Sir Philip Sidney by de Passe 1620 (NPG, right)

In his book, Stewart laments that the Veronese portrait of Sidney was later lost but also records how Roger Kuin of York University spent some time trying to find the portrait. "Kuin argues the picture may have been bought at auction by another of Languet's proteges, Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay, who was living on the same street in Antwerp at the time. This would explain the presence of a portrait of "M. Synei" in the gallery of Du Plessis' chateau at Saumur in 1619." 


But the trail didn't end there. The Ashgate Research Companion to The Sidneys, volume I, states that, according to Elizabeth Goldring (author of a wonderful new book on Nicholas Hilliard) the picture ended up in the Leicester House on the Strand, where in 1582 it was inventoried as a portrait of Sidney "when he was a boye."

Above: The Unknown Youth in Carolina (left) and the only establish painted portrait of Sir Philip Sidney (NPG 2096, date unknown, artist unknown, right)
Above: unknown youth (left) and portrait of Sidney c. 1600 English school kept at Knole National Trust in Kent. Note similarity of the ties, resting on the shoulders in both portraits, used to secure the armor.
All of which brings me to the portrait of an unknown English courtier by an unknown but extremely talented painter kept in the British Collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art that certainly matches all the above descriptions of the lost Sidney portrait painted by Veronese (or its copy). I will leave it to the experts to decide if the portrait was painted in the style of the Italian master. The North Carolina portrait bears an inscription, but the museum acknowledges it was added much later and is known to be incorrect. 

The unknown sitter in North Carolina bears an uncanny resemblance to a portrait miniature by Isaac Oliver said to be of Sidney that was once owned by JP Morgan (it ended up in the Berger Collection and was sold at auction in 2017). The two young men certainly could be the same sitter, although the rosy sunburned cheeks of Italy are absent in Oliver's English miniature. I will also point out that there appears to be another collar visible beneath the transparent figure-eight collar in the miniature. I'm not sure what to make of that. Usually such crumpled figure-eights were fashionable in the 1590's, but this seems something altogether different and unique. Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh were the two greatest fashion fantasticos in England.
Above: Unknown Youth in North Carolina (left) and Possible Sir Philip Sidney, date unknown, by Isaac Oliver in the Berger Collection (Denver Museum, right)

The breast plate the young man is wearing in the North Carolina portrait appears to depict Mercury. The missing Italian portrait of Sidney did not have an inscription on it, or so we can assume from a letter sent by Sidney to Languet stating as much. And, as stated earlier, the inscription currently on the portrait of the unknown youth was added later and is incorrect. Originally it did not have any inscription.

The North Carolina Museum of Art has a number of sitters in its British Collection who greatly resemble Elizabethan nobles or power players. All of these sitters remain unidentified, as do the incredibly talented painters, but one portrait in particular in that collection bears an amazing resemblance to Mary Sidney Herbert, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney. Considering the artistic skills brought to bear on these pictures, it's not unreasonable to suspect they might be connected back in time to Penshurst Palace or Leicester House. 

Above: Unknown Woman (North Carolina Museum of Art, left) & Mary Sidney Herbert (NPG, right)
Below: notice on the website of the North Carolina Museum of Art

So, with all that in mind, I'll leave it to the professionals to look into this mystery. I'll also let them date the costume of the North Carolina youth--the fashion in Italy was years ahead of England and therefore I don't feel qualified to date the portrait, although the unknown young man is wearing some awesome Italian cutwork on his collar and cuffs. The Bishop-style sleeves, filled with bombast from shoulder to wrist, came into style c. 1575 in England, and Veronese's portrait was painted in 1574. The peascod-bellied doublet was also coming into style c. 1575. As to the collar, such falling bands were always in style. The hose, or loose fitting canions, seem more Italian than English, I think. 

I wish I could spent the next month investigating this portrait. I've got two books coming out soon and don't have much time.
Above: breast plate adjusted on Photoshop. The figure wearing a feathered cap and holding a caduceus would seem to be the god Mercury; however it's unusual to depict Mercury as riding a horse. The unknown sitter in the North Carolina portrait is posing, we can assume, as Mars--or at least the spear he is holding would indicate as much.
Above: helmet with dragons--perhaps an allusion to St. George? Also note the red-jeweled doodad pinned to a brown glove behind the helmet.
Related posts: 

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

My Final Argument that the Portrait of an Unknown Fashion Fantastico in North Carolina Depicts the Privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish

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