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Around 1643, Peter Lely moved to London. His early English paintings were mainly religious or mythological scenes or portraits set in pastoral landscapes. These works show heavy influences of Anthony van Dyck and the Dutch Baroque painters, especially his portraits.
Lely’s portraits were very well received by the public, much so he would replace van Dyck upon the artist’s death, as the most celebrated and fashionable portrait artist in England at the time. He even became the portrait artist to Charles I. In spite of the King’s execution in 1647, his talent ensured the stability of his career in such a turbulent period, subsequently serving Oliver Crom well and Richard Cromwell.
Soon, Peter Lely became an artist in high demand, as well as his studio. Scholars argue that after Lely a sitter’s head, his alumni would finish the remaining composition. Such a prolific production was responsible for an astonishing number of paintings, not all critically approved. As art critic Brian Sewell would put: “There may well be thousands of these portraits, ranging from rare prime originals of often quite astonishing quality, to crass workshop replicas by assistants drilled to imitate Lely’s way….”
Amongst Lely’s most famous paintings are a series of depictions of prominent ladies from the Royal Court’, said series became known as the Windsor Beauties. He also created the Flagmen of Lowestoft, a series of 12 paintings depicting captains and admirals who fought the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
Peter Lely was also responsible for the introduction of the mezzotint printmaking technique to England, as a way to publicize his paintings, encouraging Dutch mezzotinters to come to execute replicas of his artworks.
Sir Peter Lely was Knighted in 1679 and died on December 7 of the following year. The artist died painting at his easel.