Recent conservation work on the NCMA’s Barbara Villiers, later Duchess of Cleveland has dramatically transformed its appearance. The painting came to the Museum in 1959, but because of poor condition, it has rarely seen the light of day. It has not been on view since the collection moved from downtown Raleigh to the Blue Ridge Road site in 1983. The portrait, which dates from roughly 1665, is attributed to the studio of Peter Lely (1618– 1680). Lely was a Dutch painter who went to England about 1641 and succeeded Van Dyck (who died in that year) as the leading painter at the English court and the most fashionable portraitist in England.
The Duchess, née Barbara Villiers (1640–1709), is possibly one of the best-known mistresses in history. She became the very public favorite of English King Charles II in 1660, even though she was married to Roger Palmer at the time. The duchess was famous for her beauty: “Tall, voluptuous, with masses of auburn hair, slanting, heavy-lidded blue-violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth,” as described by Antonia Fraser in her book King Charles II. The duchess was known for her charm as well as her extravagance, foul temper, and promiscuity. For 13 years her influence over the king waxed and waned in the quagmire of court intrigue, earning her the nickname “the uncrowned queen” but also “the curse of the nation.”
Before treatment the painting was very dark and yellow-brown in appearance. The curtain in the background at right was so dark it could barely be seen, and the garment at bottom left was an odd, unsightly green. Conservation work focused on removing several layers of very old varnish, grime, and previous restoration. Careful cleaning revealed that the curtain area at left was damaged and had been largely repainted in a past restoration. The green garment at lower left was also buried in old restoration paint, but cleaning uncovered the original light blue painted garment, which proved almost damage free. This depiction of light blue silk is relatively common in paintings of this period and, in this case, was probably achieved using a pigment called smalt. (Exact identification of the pigment requires analysis that was beyond the scope of this project). A product of the glass industry, smalt made beautiful transparent blues, but it was unstable in a paint film and frequently turned brown over time. In this case it is well preserved. Smalt fell out of use by painters when better-performing blue pigments came along.
Now that the duchess has been restored to her former beauty, she is ready for her close up. She’s now on view in West Building.
Sir Peter Lely and Studio, Barbara Villiers, later Duchess of Cleveland, circa 1662–1665, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in., Gift of the Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries and the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries in memory of William R. Valentiner