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Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed

Venetia Stanley (1600-33) was an infamous wit and beauty in the court of King Charles I (1600-49). Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-65) was a diplomat, naval commander, poet, and scientist. The couple fell in love, eloped, and married in 1625. On 30 April 1633, Lady Venetia died suddenly in her sleep, and her distraught husband quickly summoned the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) to record her fading beauty. This painting was finished several weeks after Lady Venetia’s death, and Sir Kenelm described it in a letter to his brother as:

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.

Rather than depicting the sobering realities of death, Van Dyck depicts Venetia in a peaceful, transitory state. Van Dyck depicts Venetia as if she is falling asleep, her left eye still coming to a close.  The pearly white folds of her nightgown blend with the pillow and sheet around her, all conveying the illusion of her gradually becoming one with heavenly clouds and surrounded by a velvet blue sky. The pink flower has not yet shed all of its petals, giving the impression that – like Venetia herself – it hovers between life and death. The peachy pink of the petals is echoed in the unlikely blush of Venetia’s cheeks; it seems that despite her death she retains a quiet vitality. All these ambiguous elements were no doubt intended to console Sir Kenelm in his grief, who wrote: ‘This is the only constant companion I now have’.

Van Dyck was invited to England to be the leading court painter to King Charles I (1600-1649) in 1632 and was knighted the same year.  Sir Kenelm was already a patron of the artist when he commissioned this death portrait of his wife. Van Dyck executed several paintings for the couple, including a full-length allegorical portrait of Venetia (completed posthumously), two portraits of Kenelm himself, and a family portrait with their two sons in 1632. 

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