Back in September, a client of mine emailed me an image of a painting he owned, and asked me what I thought of it. It was a head and shoulders portrait of an unknown woman, about 1675 in date from her hairstyle, and by an artist who looked like mixture of Lely and Voet. It was a brilliant piece of painting, crackling with the raw energy of a life sketch – all that rapid perception and painterly fireworks. Pentiments in the hair and the line of the left shoulder showed where the artist was still working out his composition as he painted.
The sketch before conservation. (Owner’s photograph).
The owner asked me who I thought the sitter was. She was a wit, I thought, and she reminded me a bit of Madame de Sevigné, the French courtier and letter-writer. It is possible to make valid assumptions about the sitter in a portrait, based on your immediate impression of their character – my client has a sixth sense at this – and the suggestion in the painting itself as to where and by whom it would have been seen. This seemed to be a private image, showing the sitter with her equals, as she would have looked to someone sitting opposite her at dinner. She was spirited, amusing, clever, strong-willed. A portrait for those who loved her. My client was wholly captivated by her, and was struck from the first by an impression of character which proved to be completely accurate. He was also certain from the start that we were dealing with a portrait of great significance.
A week or so later, by one of those moments of good luck that are almost frightening in their serendipity, I came across this image, a portrait of Queen Ulrika Eleanora of Sweden at Gripsholm Castle. It is attributed to Jacques D’Agar and dated to 1677.
(c) Nationalmuseum, Sweden
Well, this was clearly the same sitter, and it was the same composition translated from a sketch into a formal royal portrait. The two paintings are a good illustration of the difference between a sketch, where the artist paints what he sees, the way that light moves across objects, and a copy, which is more literal and less intuitive. And in the Swedish portrait the mood is also grander; the sitter seems to draw herself back from the viewer. Not a lively neighbour at dinner but the bust on a medal. This is a portrait of the Queen.
Case closed. A life sketch of Queen Ulrika Eleanore of Sweden (1656 – 1693), born Ulrike Eleanore of Denmark, by Jacques D’Agar the French-born Danish Court Portraitist from 1684 to 1716. There is no biography of Ulrike Eleanore in English so I am indebted to this superb wikipedia entry, which is well worth reading.
Ulrike Eleanore was a very remarkable woman indeed. In 1676, her betrothal to King Charles XI of Sweden was broken by her brother King Christian V, because of the outbreak of the Scanian War between Denmark and Sweden. Despite this, Ulrike Eleanora considered herself engaged to Sweden and a pledge of peace between both countries. She spent the war helping Swedish prisoners of war, even pawning her jewels including her engagement ring to do so. Her marriage to the King of Sweden formed part of the peace negotiations in 1679. As Queen of Sweden from 1680 she devoted herself to the welfare of her subjects, and by her death she was helping to support some 17,000 people from her own income. When Ulrike Eleanore died in 1693 crowds mourned her in the streets, and King Charles XI never remarried, despite diplomatic pressure to do so. No one, it was said, had ever thought less for herself or more for other people.
This seemed to be a successful conclusion. By chance, D’Agar was even said to have trained under Jacob-Ferdinand Voet and he was in England in the last years of Lely’s life. The dynamic Baroque twist of the pose could also fit, like D’Agar’s 1675 portrait of Francois Girardon at Versailles. But there was something else niggling at the back of this D’Agar attribution. As Gripsholm Castle informed us, Jacques D’Agar was not in Denmark in 1677 and hadn’t arrived before Ulrike Eleanore left in 1680. Jacques D’Agar was by circumstance something of a gypsy; already in England by 1678, he was expelled from the French Academy as a Protestant in 1682 before finally going to Denmark in 1684. But for all his travels, he was always a French painter, and the sketch is just too Flemish. You feel that you’re not far from the world of Rubens and Van Dyck.
The Swedish attribution to D’Agar was not traditional. It had been made in the 1950s, and subsequently queried due to the dates. Had D’Agar made an earlier visit to Denmark in the mid-’70s? When King Christian broke his sister’s engagement to his enemy in 1676 he offered her hand instead to the Prince of Orange – the future King William III – and then to Emperor Leopold I. This could well have been the occasion for a new portrait, though it was hard to square the idea with such a cheerful likeness. I asked the Danish Royal Collection, and they very kindly told me there was no evidence of it. The case for D’Agar was getting thinner and thinner – as opinion later confirmed – when my client asked what other Court painters were in Denmark at the time.
This was a breakthrough moment, just as the painting came back from conservation. The surface was intact and so fresh it seemed only just to have come from the painter’s easel.
The sketch after light conservation (Owner’s photograph)
One Danish Court Painter had the manner and the artistic pedigree for a masterpiece like this. Abraham Wuchters was born in Antwerp in 1608, only nine years after Van Dyck, ten years before Lely (2). I hadn’t heard of Wuchters before, but this sketch was a superb introduction to his talents. Like all the best painters, Wuchters only got better as he got older. This is the work of a man of almost seventy.
In 1638 Wuchters had gone to Denmark to teach drawing, when he was invited to Copenhagen to paint portraits of King Christian IV and members of the Royal Family. This led to further Royal commissions in 1645. In the following reign, Wuchters was appointed keeper of the King’s paintings to Frederick III from 1664 until the accession of King Christian V in 1671, when he was appointed Royal Portraitist and Royal engraver, giving him absolute control over the King’s published image . Wuchters made two visits to the Swedish Court between 1658 and 1662, otherwise his career is entirely Danish until his death in 1682. The position of Court painter is not always a secure one, but Wuchters must have been a very capable court politician as well as a highly-skilled and adaptable painter. Crucially, Wuchters’s work is always modern, from his first austere Netherlandish full-length of King Christian IV in 1638
to the absolutist Baroque of his later career. This painted ceiling at Rosenborg Palace c.1660 shows Ulrike Eleanore’s parents Frederick III and Sophie Amalie of Brunswick, as Jupiter and Juno, King and Queen of the Gods.
In this context, the sketch of Ulrike Eleanore was not only further proof that Wuchters remained bang up to date with fashions in the artistic mainstream, but that he was entirely master of them. It was also, we realised, his only example of an informal Royal portrait.
This was all looking rather more promising. And then we had a fantastic email from a Danish scholar in answer to one of mine sent to an old address. He wondered whether Wuchters might not be a more likely artist than D’Agar. It was a fabulous moment. He commented on the typical ‘wet’ highlight to the lip and the distinctive brushwork. We had noticed this especially in the underpainting to the shadow on the sitter’s jawline, a series of bold hatching strokes also visible in Wuchters’s earlier portrait of Queen Christina of Sweden.
Queen Christina of Sweden 1661. Skoklosters Castle, image Nathan Popp.
There was also a portrait of Ulrike Eleanore herself in the Swedish Nationalmuseum, dated 1679 the year that Denmark and Sweden concluded the peace at the end of the Scanian War.
Ulrike Eleanore in 1679 (c) Nationalmuseum
This is clearly the same sitter, but the presentation is far more formal, very much a best-behaviour portrait for the future in-laws. And it may well date from a couple of years later than our portrait, for which a date of around 1677, the year inscribed on the Swedish version when Ulrikke Eleanore was 21 year old, always felt most probable. How did it all fit together though? Who was it painted for and why was there a copy in Sweden?
A Swedish art historian was able to supply the last piece of the puzzle. She very kindly told me that there was an old tradition associated with the Swedish portrait, that it was a betrothal portrait sent from Denmark to Sweden. As she pointed out, this was unlikely due to the fact that the sitter in the Swedish portrait is wearing the Queen’s robe, dating it no earlier than 1680. But she also mentioned the possibility, raised by a colleague, that the Swedish portrait was painted from a further original. In this case, the possibility that this rediscovered life-sketch is this missing painting, sent from Denmark to Sweden as a betrothal portrait becomes very compelling indeed. The dating may never be proved absolutely. But if the inscription 1677 records the year that the oil sketch was painted, then it was made during the Scanian War when Ulrike Eleanore kept true to her engagement and loyal to her future husband, despite their being on opposite sides in a war. A time when her engagement was essentially secret. And if the sketch was intended for her fiance, the picture’s magic makes perfect sense.
This last piece may well also hold the key to the sketch’s provenance. The painting had belonged to a private collection in this country, and there were no records of Wuchters’s studio sales or contents. Nor was there an early record of it in the Danish Royal Collection. But research may still unearth some trace of it with a Swedish source.
We were delighted when the sketch was acquired last month by the Danish Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle. It is a very suitable home for her. Ulrike Eleanore said goodbye to her brother the King for the last time at Frederiksborg in February 1680, knowing that they would never see each other again, and Christian returned to her all the jewels she had pawned to raise money for Swedish prisoners. It will be a wonderful thing if Ulrike Eleanore and her story go on to inspire the visitors there. As my client said it is rare to come across someone who did so much good, and only good, in their life.
We are extremely grateful to Thomas Lyngby, Mikael Bøgh Rasmussen, Eva-Lena Karlsson, Inga Elmqvist Söderlund, Julia Marciari-Alexander, Lisa Skogh and Vera Østrup for being so generous with their time and expertise in helping us research this painting.
(1) Researching D’Agar, incidentally, is something of an eye-opener. There are two D’Agar painters who crop up in English art, Jacques (1642 – 1715) and his son Charles (1669 – (1723). Jacques stayed in this country for six years from 1678 to 1684; Charles made his career here, as a painter in Charles Jervas’s generation and working in a style that is like a softer version of Dahl. He is so close an imitator of Dahl that old attributions sometimes confuse the two, but I’ve never found any record of their being professional associates. The two D’Agars have now been untangled by Julia Marciari-Alexander in her excellent DNB entry; traditionally, much of Charles’s work was attributed to Jacques. Horace Walpole is rarely wrong, but his Anecdotes of Painting published in 1762 enshrined the confusion. This conflation of one artist with another must reflect how contemporaries saw them, which is especially remarkable given the fact that Jacques D’Agar left the country during the reign of King Charles II and Charles D’Agar survived into Walpole’s lifetime.
(2) The Rosenborg Castle website prefers a birthdate of 1610. I ought to then, but I like painters to live as long as possible, and to be painting masterpieces into great old age.