LELY, Sir Peter
(b. 1618, Soest, d. 1680, London)
Dutch Baroque portrait painter known for his Van Dyck-influenced likenesses of the mid-17th-century English aristocracy. He was born as Pieter van der Faes in Soest, Westphalia, on 14 September 1618. He was the son of Abigael van Vliet, the daughter of a prominent Utrecht family, and Johan van der Faes, a captain in the regiment of Baron Walraven van Gent. The regiment, which served the Elector Palatine of Brandenburg, was quartered in Soest and various other parts of Westphalia around the time that Lely was born. According to Houbraken, Peter came to be known as Lely, the Dutch word for 'lily', because his father was born in a house in The Hague with 'a lily on the façade'. It was probably the house called 'Inde lelye', which by 1562 was said to belong to Hendrick Faes, who was presumably the painter's great-grandfather. In 1652, Lely's aunt, Odilia van der Faes, was still living in the house, and Lely himself may have lived there as well. In any event, he spent some time in The Hague before settling in Haarlem.
He must have started using the name Lely early on in his life, as confirmed by a document from 1637. Lely may have been apprenticed to De Grebber at that stage, though this remains unconfirmed. Houbraken reports that Lely was apprenticed to De Grebber for a period of two years.
Around 1641, Lely left for England, where he soon emerged as a leading portraitist. He may have started his career working with George Geldorp, a portrait painter and art dealer in London. According to Lely's first biographer, Richard Graham, the artist started off in London as a landscape and history painter. Before long, however, he turned his hand to portraiture, for which there was a far greater demand. Though Lely was receiving prestigious commissions in the times of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, he reached the peak of his career during the reign of Charles II. In October 1661, the king granted him an annual stipend of two hundred pounds 'as formerly to Sr Vandyke'. In 1679, he was awarded a knighthood. Peter Lely died on 30 November 1680 with his palette in his hand while painting a portrait of the Duchess of Somerset.
Lely was the most technically proficient painter in England after the death of Van Dyck. During the Commonwealth he adopted a severe, puritanical style, but his Restoration portraits of women are noted for their subtle colouring, skillful rendering of silk, and the air of sensuous languor with which they invest their subjects - e.g., the portrait series of court ladies entitled The Windsor Beauties (1660s; Hampton Court, London). Simultaneously he painted the portrait series of the Admirals (1666-67) at Greenwich, the best of them rugged and severely masculine characterizations. Lely's late works are marred by stylistic mannerisms and decreasing vitality.
Lely kept in touch with friends in Holland all his life, and his work must have been known there as well. In May 1656, he was issued a passport to travel to Holland. He was evidently also a close acquaintance of the Amsterdam art dealer Gerard Uylenborgh. A document drawn up in Dublin in 1668 following the death of Abraham Uylenborgh, 'late painter to Her Highnesse the dutchesse of Ormond', refers to Lely as the 'trusty and well beloved friend' of Gerard Uylenborgh and his sisters. When Uylenborgh went bankrupt in 1675, some of his art collection, including sculptures by Artus Quellinus and paintings by Caspar Netscher, Cornelis Poelenburch, Anthonis Mor and Adriaen Brouwer, turned out to be in Lely's possession in London. Lely was presumably acting as his agent. Other documents also show that he was active as an art dealer. The insolvent Uylenborgh moved to London where, as Houbraken informs us, he took to painting the costumes and landscapes in Lely's portraits.
During his lifetime Lely acquired a valuable collection of art, which Uylenborgh estimated in 1677 to be worth in the region of 10,000 pounds. Lely must have started collecting soon after moving to England. In any event, he bought paintings by Veronese, Breenbergh and Tintoretto at the sale of Charles I's collection in 1649-1650. In 1682, two years after his death, his collection of paintings was sold. It included work by Veronese, Titian, Giorgione, Guido Reni, Guercino, Pieter van Laer, Claude Lorrain, Rubens, Frans Hals and a superb collection - 'his best Pieces' - by Anthony van Dyck. Lely's drawing and print collections were sold in 1688 and 1694.