Captain Thomas Lee | Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger | 1594
Because of the persecution of the Protestants by the Duke of Alva, Marcus Gheeraerts escapes from Belgium along with his father and end in England. There, Gheeraerts meets Sir Henry Lee, a courtier from Queen Elizabeth I, who became his patron. Because of him, the artist got commissions and became known in court circles.
In 1594, Henry Lee commissions Gheeraerts with a portrait of his uncle, the captain Thomas Lee, a soldier famous for his campaigns in Ireland, territory still considered as savage and uncivilized by the British. In the painting, we see the captain dressed in Irish fashion; bare-legged, which allowed him to walk comfortably through the swamps of the island. The detail of the clothes isn’t random: instead of being portrayed as a gentleman, the English captain prefers to pose as a savage Irishman; half naked, surrounded by a harsh landscape. In art history, sumptuous dresses, jewelry and accessories were considered frivolous and artificial. Ostentation then, served as a mask to hide the true self; and, on the contrary, nudity symbolized simplicity and authenticity (think in Michelangelo’s David). The intention of Gheeraerts with Captain Thomas Lee was, precisely, to present the soldier as a natural person, a brave savage, apart from the lies and hypocrisy of the British court.