It has been suggested that this finely preserved portrait depicts the leading physician of the seventeenth century, the prominent courtier Sir Théodore de Mayerne. His lengthy, stellar career brought him to the upper reaches of courtly society, where he became the most sought-after, well-known and wealthiest physician of his time. In a remarkably varied life, he did not limit himself to medical practice but pursued keen interests in alchemy and artistic techniques, which would eventually lead him to produce one of the most significant treatises for art historical studies of the baroque period.
Born in Geneva to a Calvinist father, who was a celebrated historian, Mayerne went to study in Heidelberg before moving to Montpellier and eventually to Paris, where he was appointed one of King Henri IV's physicians in 1598. Following Henri's assassination in 1610, and the subsequent turn towards Catholicism under Louis XIII, the Calvinist Mayerne settled in Protestant England. Within a short space of time he was appointed first physician to King James I of England and VI of Scotland and was elected Fellow of the College of Physicians. He was then appointed the first physician to Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and it was during this period that he was arguably at the height of his fame: he became a figure of truly international standing at court, a diplomat as well as a doctor, with strong links to the French Huguenots, to the Swiss cantons, and to most ambassadors, who all numbered amongst his patients. Though he enjoyed an ostensibly glittering life, he appeared to be a man of earthly charm. In response to a letter from a troubled fellow court physician he reflected: 'The experience of many years spent in the courts of princes has taught me that the doctors who attend the great have a wretched life...In kings' courts he lives best who is least seen.' (Hugh Trevor-Roper, Europe's Physician. The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 349).
His signal importance to political and medical history has been keenly documented, and the detailed case records he maintained offer a deep understanding of clinical practice through the early seventeenth century (see Brian Nance, Turquet de Mayerne as Baroque Physician: The Art of Medical Portraiture, Rodopi, New York, 2001). But as Hugh Trevor-Roper explains in his biography of Mayerne, his 'most lasting significance is, ironically, not in the history of medicine but in the history of art' (Trevor-Roper, op. cit., p. 302). Indeed, art and medicine, both conceived as applied sciences, intertwined in Mayerne's life. From 1620 until 1646 he recorded his encounters with artists and artisans, together with information gleaned from other sources on the technology of art. The result was the so-called 'de Mayerne manuscript' (held at the British Library, Sloane MS 2052), a critically important document for the understanding of Northern European art in the seventeenth century. Mayerne includes contributions from leading painters of the day, notably Rubens, van Dyck, Mytens, Paul van Somer, and Cornelis Jonson. He was particularly close to van Dyck and Rubens, meeting the latter following his visit to London in 1629-30 on a diplomatic mission for Philip IV of Spain. Rubens would make several portraits of Mayerne: one is held in the New York University Art Collection, and a drawing is kept at the British Museum. After Rubens's return to Antwerp in 1630 he painted the large canvas now in North Carolina, and sent it to Mayerne in London; a later copy of this work is held at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
In addition to the Rubens portraits, Mayerne sat to both John Hoskins and Jean Petitot, and he is usually shown typically well-fed: 'Mayerne is known from his portraits to have been very corpulent; it is said that he kept no regular meals, but that he had his table constantly covered so that he could eat whenever he found himself disposed.' (L. M. Payne, 'Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne 1573-1655', British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 4916, 26 March 1955, p. 783). This present portrait may, though, capture him at a moment of personal grief: his wife died in London on 17 November 1628, shortly before this picture was executed; he would appear to be wearing a wedding ring around his neck. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1879, as an unidentified gentleman, it was erroneously dated 1624. Mayerne clearly knew and held Jonson in high regard, describing him in his manuscript as 'bon peintre' (Sloane MS 2052 p. 152), and this portrait showcases the artist's skill: the blacks of the costume are subtly and beautifully worked, and the almost translucent skin tones delicately rendered. Jonson was said to be fond of using ultramarine, even in the flesh tones of his sitters to achieve such effects. The result is a work of appropriate cerebral depth and understated elegance.
We are grateful to Karen Hearn for confirming the attribution upon first-hand inspection.