Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland as St. Catherine of Alexandria | Sir Peter Lely | 1666
Despite being born in the Netherlands, Peter Lely’s career was entirely developed in England.
He painter for the court of Charles II of England. Although, after his execution, he continued portraying for Oliver Cromwell.
Barbara Villiers was one of the mistresses of Charles II. Despite the king was married, the attraction that Villiers provoked on him was as big as the fascination she provoked in the public. Evidently, she had privileges in court, as she always requested lots of portraits of herself and commonly he would pose as different characters. There are portraits of her where we see her as a madonna, with widow’s clothes, as a pastor and, in today’s painting, as St. Catherine with her sword.
The portrait is a little disturbing. In the background, we can see a column and a sky completely un red. Villiers’ dress is coherent with that background and makes the composition very strong and unbalanced, because the cold color of her cloak is not enough to balance the fury that the painting is transmitting. The gaze of the courtesan is arrogant and in her expression, we only seem to see haughtiness.
One may wonder how this type of woman, with her evidently lack of beauty, may generate so much fascination in the kingdom, right? I think that there is a certain fascination towards the morbid, towards the vile or inhuman… but this is my opinion.
However, not out of nothing, John Evelyn, a diarist of that time, describes Villiers as the “curse of the nation”, in reference to her extravagance, temper and promiscuity. I think that the real merit of Sir Peter Lely is having portrait, not her appearance, but her personality.