Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gower, George

Portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait
oil on canvas
101.6 x 97.8 cm
private collection

"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too."  (Queen Elizabeth I: 1533 - 1603)

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I of England is the name of surviving versions of an allegorical panel painting depicting the Tudor queen surrounded by symbols of imperial majesty representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth I used art as propaganda.

George Gower (c.1540 - 1596) was the foremost English portraitist of his day, but little is known  about his early life. He was appointed official Painter to Elizabeth I in 1581. This allowed him to paint most of England’s aristocracy. The post also made him responsible for painted decorations at the royal residences, among these a fountain (now destroyed) and an astronomical clock, both at Hampton Court Palace; he also decorated royal coaches and furniture. In 1584 Gower was granted the monopoly over the Queen’s easel portraiture, and was also made responsible for inspecting portraits of the Queen by other artists prior to their official release. His best-known work is the version of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, painted to commemorate the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. This painting is one version of the Armada Portrait which is attributed to Gower.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I are the most complex and varied of all English royal portraiture, ranging from the earliest depiction of the submissive thirteen-year-old Princess to the most elaborate portraits of the commanding ‘Virgin Queen’. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had realized the political potential of the portrait, which he used to personify his divinely appointed power and emphasize the strength of the Tudor Dynasty. The Armada Portrait, a celebration of victory against the Spanish, was a declaration of the strength of Elizabeth’s rule. Elizabeth I conveys simultaneously her authoritative body politic and her physical existence as a woman, carefully manipulating her sexuality to proclaim her power. The flamboyant image of Elizabeth I seen here has become one of the most successful sovereign statements in English history.