The Great British Art Tour: filters and a facelift – a 17th-century selfie

With public art collections closed we are bringing the art to you, exploring highlights from across the country in partnership with Art UK. Today’s pick: Leamington Spa’s Self-Portrait by Candelight by Schalcken

Self Portrait by Candlelight, 1695, Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706)
Self Portrait by Candlelight, 1695, by Godfried Schalcken. Photograph: Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum
Self Portrait by Candlelight, 1695, by Godfried Schalcken. Photograph: Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum
Jane Simpkiss, fine art curator, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum
Mon 15 Feb 2021 01.00 EST

Godfried Schalcken was already famous in his homeland of the Dutch Republic when he sailed for England in 1692. Celebrated for his small, intricately detailed nocturnal scenes, Schalcken hoped to grow his following across the Channel in the court of King William and Queen Mary and vie for the position of official portrait painter to the Crown.

This self-portrait acted as his visual CV. Aware that no other portrait painter in England at that time could rival his mastery of light and shade, Schalcken bathes the scene in candlelight, promoting his unique skill. He identifies himself as the author of this work by blatantly pointing to the artist’s palette in his left hand. Light shimmers off the red silk swag and Schalcken’s silk slashed doublet, recalling the portraits of Anthony Van Dyck. In this way, Schalcken claims his place in a distinguished line of Dutch artists working as court painters in England.

Self Portrait by Candlelight, 1695, Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706). H: 109.5cm W:88.5cm
Self Portrait by Candlelight, 1695, by Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706). H: 109.5cm W:88.5cm Photograph: Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

Schalcken produced much larger canvases than usual while in England in order to compete with the incumbent court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller. Following a “Go Big or Go Home” philosophy, this is one of the largest portraits Schalcken ever made at over a metre high.

Schalcken’s portrait – a masterclass in self-promotion – highlights the close connection between Dutch and British painting in the 17th century and the enduring truth that portraits should not be taken at face value. There is always a hidden agenda. Schalcken takes advantage of the forgiving nature of candlelight in this work to depict himself as much younger than his 52 years. It is thought that the gold chain around the artist’s neck, a symbol of aristocratic patronage, may have been painted in at a later date to further emphasise Schalcken’s importance.

Although he was commissioned to paint King William III’s portrait in the same style as his own, Schalcken never achieved his dream of being made a royal portrait painter and returned to the Dutch Republic in 1698.

• You can see more art from Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum on Art UK here, and find out more on its website.

• This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.

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