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Portrait of a Physician

Both the sitter and the creator of this portrait have been the subject of much debate. Holding what appears to be an anatomical drawing, the assumption has historically been that the sitter is a physician. The drawing shows a nude figure, the right arm separated so that the torso can be seen in full. This pose is similar to one found in the Dutch engraver Philip Galle’s (1537-1612) Instruction et Fondements de bien Pourtraire (Instruction and Foundations of Good Drawing), a series of engravings produced in 1589 that were intended for use by artists for anatomical reference. Rather than holding an engraving, like that found in Galle’s publication, the sitter in this portrait holds a drawing or painting on coloured blue paper – perhaps copied from Galle, or a similar source. The sitter appears intent on showing this anatomical figure to the viewer, suggesting that it serves more as an attribute of an artist demonstrating his life-drawing skills than of a physician displaying his anatomical understanding. The drawing is the only clue to the sitter’s identity and, whether an artist or a physician, implies the credentials of a scholarly man. His solid presence and steadfast gaze hint at a character to be taken seriously.

Although this sitter’s pose recalls a similar portrait by German-born artist, Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723) (the Portrait of Sir Anthony Deane, in the National Portrait Gallery, London), recent research has suggested that this painting could be by the most successful female British portraitist of the seventeenth century, Mary Beale (née Craddock; 1633–99). Beale worked in close partnership with her husband, Charles Beale (1632–1705), who was her studio manager: mixing her pigments, stretching and priming the canvases, and recording her working practice. In this portrait, there is an economy of colour in her palette, keeping the background and drapery relatively plain, while time has been spent working up the delicate flesh tones in the face. Beale devoted care and attention to the faces of her sitters – the most important part of any portrait – while the loosely rendered folds of fabric have been executed far more quickly. In a busy studio, this kind of time management was essential because, at the height of her success, Beale undertook eight-nine commissions in one year, having to work six days a week.

Currently on display

Attributed to Mary Beale
Late 17th Century
Gallery 10
75.9 x 63.5 cm
Oil on canvas
Bequest of H. Margaret Spanton, 1934
Accession number