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Discovered painting of Elizabeth I to go on display as National Portrait Gallery announces major exhibition
Queen Elizabeth I ('Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses') c. 1590. attrib. Isaac Oliver © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- A previously unknown painting of Elizabeth I attributed to the famous miniaturist Isaac Oliver has been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The small painting – the size of a postcard – will go on show as part of a major new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Elizabeth I and Her People (10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), supported by The Weiss Gallery, where it will be displayed alongside a selection of portraits of Elizabeth I. Seen together, they will show how the Queen established, during a reign of nearly 50 years, an image of a strong and powerful female monarch.

An unusual allegorical painting, the portrait is a reworking of the classical story of the Judgment of Paris upon the goddesses of marriage, war and love. In the guise of Paris, the Queen is represented as both judge and winner, retaining for herself the prize of the golden apple.

This miniature reinterprets the theme of Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, found in the Royal Collection painting of the same title by Hans Eworth, also shown in the exhibition. While the artist certainly appears to borrow some of the essential formal elements of the composition from the earlier painting, it is markedly different in terms of the Queen’s appearance, background landscape, costumes of the goddesses and in the addition of the peacock, and so the miniature can be considered an original reworking of the subject.

Elizabeth is shown in a remarkable dress of cloth-of-gold, wearing a diamond necklace and a golden crown, and her wide ruff and jewelled headpiece suggest the fashions of the later 1580s or early 1590s, as seen in works such as the Woburn Abbey Armada Portrait (c.1588).

National Portrait Gallery Chief Curator, and Curator of Elizabeth I and Her People, Dr Tarnya Cooper says that while the picture is not signed, the highly accomplished technique and continental influence – particularly in the mannerist, twisted figure of Juno – suggests an attribution to Isaac Oliver (c.1556–1617) or another, as yet unknown, continental follower of Nicholas Hilliard.

‘Elizabeth’s rounded face and small features are usual, but it is meant to be a flattering portrait, showing the Queen as perpetually youthful’, says Dr Cooper. ‘It is difficult to speculate about who this cabinet miniature might have been produced for – the provenance provides us with no further clues – but the small scale and remarkably high quality of this work indicate that it would have been painted for a patron close to the court.’

Portraits of Elizabeth will be one focus of a large exhibition of over 100 objects, including accessories artefacts, costumes, coins, jewellery and crafts, which is the first devoted to the rise of new social classes in Elizabethan society. Elizabeth I and Her People will include not just portraits of courtiers, but also intriguing lesser-known images of merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights and artists – all of whom contributed to the making of a nation and a new world power.

Elizabeth I and Her People will show how members of a growing wealthy middle class sought to have their likenesses captured for posterity as the mid-sixteenth-century interest in portraiture broadened. Portraits of courtiers such as William Cecil, Christopher Hatton, Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth Vernon are joined by explorers such as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher, ambassadors such as Abd el-Quahed ben Messaoud, financiers such as Thomas Gresham and poets including John Donne.

Exhibits have been drawn together from private collections and public ones including Sherborne Castle, Hatfield House, the British Library, the V & A, the British Museum and the Museum of London.

Elizabeth I and Her People is curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator and its Curator of Sixteenth Century Portraits, whose previous exhibitions at the Gallery include Searching for Shakespeare (2006). She is the author of A Guide to Tudor & Jacobean Portraits (2008) and Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite, 1540–1620 (2012).

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