KNELLER, Sir Godfrey
(b. 1646, Lübeck, d. 1723, London)
The Chinese Convert1687
Oil on canvas, 212,1 x 132
Royal Collection, Windsor
Kneller shared with John Riley the post of Principal Painter to William III and Mary II; previously he had received commissions from the courts of Charles II and James II and was subsequently to do so from the courts of Queen Anne and George I. He was knighted by William III in 1692 and granted a baronetcy by George I in 1715. His most sustained work for the English court was the series of portraits of fourteen naval commanders, painted with Michael Dahl for Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark (the works were given by George IV to Greenwich Hospital in 1824), and the so-called Hampton Court Beauties, painted for Mary II. Both projects were inspired by similar undertakings by Lely during the reign of Charles II.
The sitter (Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung) was born of Chinese Christian parents and came to Europe at the instigation of Father Philip Couplet, Procurator of the China Jesuits in Rome. After leaving Macao in 1681 they travelled together in Italy, France and England. Shen Fu-Tsung left England in 1688 for Lisbon where he entered the Society of Jesus. He died near Mozambique on his way back to China in 1691.
Shen Fu-Tsung seems to have been a well-known figure at the English court and his portrait was painted for James II. The first reference to the work is by the naval surgeon, James Yonge, who saw Shen Fu-Tsung at Windsor Castle in July 1687, describing him as 'a young, palefaced fellow who had travelled from his country and become a papist (his picture being done very well like him in one of the King's lodgings).' When James II visited Oxford in September 1687, Shen Fu-Tsung was the subject of conversation at the Bodleian Library, where the sitter had apparently helped to catalogue the Chinese manuscripts. On that occasion James II remarked that 'he had his picture to the life hanging in his roome next to the bed chamber.'
The painting can be categorised either as a religious picture or as a portrait. The composition succeeds on the basis of the unaffected sense of design and the directness of the characterisation. The fact that the sitter looks upwards and away from the viewer suggests divine inspiration. According to Horace Walpole, 'Of all his works, Sir Godfrey was most proud of the converted Chinese at Windsor.'