Lace in late 16th and early 17th Century Portraiture

Lace features in almost every European elite portrait from the late sixteenth onwards. It takes up large areas of the canvas, yet is often skipped by art historians as merely decorative and meaningless. I have tried and tested the skills required for painting lace, but it is interesting to see how lace-painting developed from the birth of lace in the late sixteenth century, to its hey-days in the seventeenth century.

Lace painting generally followed the painting style and techniques of its day: from a graphical and fairly 'flat' and exact approach in Tudor England, to a much more painterly approach in the works of Rembrandt and Van Dyck in the seventeenth century.

Initially, lace ruffs and cuffs were depicted in quite an exact manner: patterns and design were meticulously followed in Tudor and Jacobean works, while the Baroque painters focussed more on the qualities of the fabric (stiff or loosely draped, etc). Lace ruffs would function as frames to a face, dishing up the head on a platter, so to speak. What was the meaning of these strange and sculptural fashion accessories? What did lace mean to the English elite and did it matter how it was painted? Artists like Hilliard, Larkin and Van Dyck each took a different approach, reflecting general changing values on fashion, status and representation. It is also interesting to see how Dutch masters of the same era approached painting lace. Rembrandt and Frans Hals took on widely different approaches, or so it seems. 

I have been exploring lace painting for many years as an artist. That soon developed into a more academic research project. With funding from the National Portrait Gallery I spent some time in 2014  traveling to various archives, museums and lace centres to further my knowledge. This resulted in a self published book, many blog posts and a series of new paintings (2014).

I am currently (2022) diving further into the history of lace in late Tudor and Jacobean portrait painting and hope to gather all my findings in a future article.

Some blog posts relating to this topic can be found below.

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