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Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed

Venetia Stanley (1600-33) was famous for her dazzling beauty and notorious for the sexual licence of her youth, something not usually tolerated in English seventeenth-century high society. Sir Kenelm Digby, a poet and scientist of some distinction, fell so completely in love with her that in 1625 he married her in secret and against the wishes of his family. When Lady Digby died unexpectedly in her sleep, during the night of 30 April 1633, Sir Kenelm was so distraught that he summoned Van Dyck to record the transitory beauty of her corpse. Sir Kenelm later wrote that this 'is the Master peece of all the excellent ones that ever Sir Anthony Vandike made, who drew her the second day after she was dead; and hath expressed with admirable art every circumstance about her, as well as the exact manner of her lying, as for the likenesse of her face; and hath altered or added nothing about it, excepting onely a rose lying upon the hemme of the sheete, whose leaves being pulled from the stalke in the full beauty of it, and seeming to wither apace, even whiles you looke upon it, is a fitt Embleme to express the state her bodie then was in'. In the posture and the patterns of bedding Van Dyck offers two consoling visual suggestions: that death is but sleep and that Venetia (or her soul) is floating on clouds surrounded by the blue skies of Heaven.

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Currently on display

Sir Anthony van Dyck
Gallery 10
74.3 x 81.8 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number
Adopted by The Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2009