Isaac Oliver (Rouen 1556-1617 London)
Isaac Oliver (Rouen 1556-1617 London)

Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses

Details
Isaac Oliver (Rouen 1556-1617 London)
Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses
traces of black chalk, bodycolour, heightened with gold, on vellum
4½ x 6¼ in. (11.5 x 15.7 cm.)

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Lot Essay

Previously unknown, this drawing reinterprets the composition of the picture Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses (1569) at Hampton Court, traditionally attributed to Hans Eworth but recently re-attributed to Joris Hoefnagel (Fig. 1). Confronted with Juno, Minerva and Venus, Elizabeth has been invited to bestow the golden apple in the rôle of Paris; rather than risk causing discord, however, she retains the prize for herself. The picture bears verses which make its message explicit: 'Pallas was keen of brain, Juno was queen of might, The rosy face of Venus was in beauty shining bright, Elizabeth then came And, overwhelmed, Queen Juno took to flight; Pallas was silenced; Venus blushed for shame' (cited in R. Strong, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, London, 2003, p. 65).
Although the composition is based on the Hampton Court picture, the present work reimagines all the figures, including the Queen herself. Whereas in the original picture Juno (goddess of matrimony) may be beckoning Elizabeth on, reflecting the expectation that she would still marry, here we see the goddess raising a restraining hand towards Venus, perhaps acknowledging the fact that Elizabeth had now proclaimed herself wedded to her country and was no longer on the marriage market. A date may be tentatively suggested on the basis of the gown Elizabeth wears, which has been updated from the earlier picture; now the wide ruff, the cloth-of-gold on padded sleeves and underskirt and the profusion of jewels suggest a date close to that of the Armada Portrait, circa 1588 (Woburn Abbey; R. Strong, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, London, 2003, fig. 138). An interesting compositional parallel can be seen in the Allegory of the Tudor Succession, attributed to Lucas de Heere (Cardiff, National Museum and Gallery; Strong, Gloriana, fig. 57), in which Elizabeth once again enters from the side of the composition, attended by figures. Like the 1569 Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, the 1572 Tudor Succession composition was updated some years later (and the Queen's gown altered to fit with current fashions), in a picture datable to circa 1590 (Strong, Gloriana, fig. 61). Elizabeth's iconography therefore retained the same motifs and allegories and yet was deliberately updated so that representations of the Queen remained contemporary and relevant.

The round faces of the Queen and her maid of honour, the finesse of execution and the very particular technique used to represent jewels - in which a tiny spot of silver is overlaid with a touch of resin - point towards an artist trained in the workshop of Nicholas Hilliard. The corresponding confidence in working on what is, for a miniaturist, a large scale and the clear awareness of Flemish Mannerism in the figures of the three goddesses indicates that this bodycolour is an early work by Isaac Oliver, Hilliard's most gifted assistant. The dating of circa 1588 makes the Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses almost contemporary with Oliver's compelling allegory of Virtue Confronting Vice in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (R. Strong, Artists of the Tudor Court, exhib. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1983, no. 270). Although the Copenhagen drawing is more complex, containing many more figures and a more carefully rendered landscape, there are nevertheless similarities with the present work: the frieze-like effect of the foreground, with two clearly defined groups of figures; the rounded faces of the lady and her two servants on the left; the whole executed on a very similar scale to that of the present work. Sir Roy Strong has described Oliver as a 'chameleon' (Artists of the Tudor Court, p. 185), constantly experimenting with technique and able to adjust his style to suit the conservative or progressive taste of a particular patron. In the present work, this may explain the difference between the hieratic, carefully stylised depiction of the ageing Elizabeth and the freer, more Mannerist representation of the goddesses.

Oliver remains a very enigmatic artist and his style has yet to be fully explored and explained. The present work has not been included in any studies of his work to date, suggesting that it has remained completely unknown. It is a confident assertion of artistic independence, drawing on an older prototype and yet recasting the language of the original work; and it is perhaps even more intriguing as a new representation of Queen Elizabeth I, around the time of the defeat of the Armada, at the peak of her power and on the cusp of the creation of her legend.

We are grateful to Sir Roy Strong for sharing his thoughts on the dating, iconography and attribution of the drawing after examination of the original.
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