Portrait of the Week: Henrietta Maria

25 November 2013

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Henrietta Maria when a Princess of France, unknown artist, c1620-40. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Henrietta Maria, French born Queen of Charles I was born in the Louvre on this day, 25th November in 1609. The youngest daughter of Henri IV and his second wife Marie de Medici, she was raised in enormous splendour and luxury at the sophisticated French court, although her father was assassinated in May 1610, when she was just not quite six months old.

I love this portrait, which is alleged to depict the young Henrietta Maria and which was painted by an anonymous artist in around 1620, when the princess was in her early teens. Although the identity of the sitter is disputed, there is definitely a strong resemblance to the better known portraits by Van Dyck and his peers of Henrietta Maria as she was in later life with those same large, bright dark eyes, wryly curling lips and curling dark hair. Although she could never be described in all honesty as ‘beautiful’, I think that the always diminutive Henrietta Maria was of a type that we today would consider to be quintessentially ‘French’ in appearance with dark hair and eyes, a small build and a certain gamine, sophisticated charm – think Audrey Tatou with side ringlets and rather less pleasing teeth.

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Charles I and Henrietta Maria Departing for the Chase, Mytens, c1630-2. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

You can see how small Henrietta Maria must have been in this other brilliant portrait in the Royal Collection, which depicts her about to head out to the hunt with her equally tiny husband, Charles I who is known to have been around 5ft 4in before he was drastically shortened even more in January 1649. This is a charming portrait though – painted by Mytens in around 1630 when the young Queen was just twenty one, it shows the royal couple, who at this point had been married for about four years and not always very happily, as blissfully in love, holding hands fondly while surrounded by the gambolling dogs and their beloved dwarf, Jeffrey Hudson and is a clear departure from the more formal and mannered portraiture of their most recent forebears, where the King and Queen were expected to be depicted in nothing less than the most splendid of garments, staring frostily and unsmilingly out at the hopefully properly cowed viewer.

In contrast, Charles I and Henrietta Maria are shown here to the left of the canvas, which removes them from the central spotlight and are also dressed in the relatively casual clothes that they would have worn for a hunting party. It’s probably no surprise therefore to learn that this painting was bought for the Royal Collection in 1894 by Queen Victoria who no doubt felt that this depiction of her Stuart ancestors (of whom she was very fond, due to their being both Scottish and also romantically tragic) was very much in keeping with her own taste for a more relaxed view of the Royal Family at play.

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Windsor Castle in Modern Times, Landseer, 1843. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Certainly it has echoes of Landseer’s superb Windsor Castle in Modern Times of 1843, which also shows a diminutive and very fondly attached young Royal Couple enjoying country pursuits a few years after their marriage – this time in the company of their small daughter, the Princess Royal rather than a dwarf and with no servants in evidence. As with the earlier portrait of Charles and Henrietta Maria, Albert and Victoria, both dressed informally with the former in his shooting gear, are shown to the side of the canvas, leaving the vista provided by the window, their dogs and a couple of very dead game birds to take centre stage.

I wonder if the by then widowed Queen Victoria felt these echoes too when the portrait of her Stuart ancestors came up for sale?

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Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.

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