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Mary Beale: An English Female Portraitist Who Ruled Her Time

Mary Beale

The Penitent Magdalene & Self Portrait by Mary Beale | Source: Art Gallery of South Australia & National Portrait Gallery, The United Kingdom

Whenever I am confabulating with you through the sections of typical western art from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, the first place I see myself starting this expedition is Italy. Now, as we walk through the corridors of Milan and Italy, we see numerous artists making wonders and giving us lessons from the most exquisite art. However, one can not summarise the entire concept of humanities and craftsmanship with just a few names. Instead, reckoning on conditions of society, environment, and economy helped us dig deeper into various artists and the inspiration behind their artworks, which made the concept of excellent artistry crispier. Previously, when I covered the life of female artists, I have always approached to give an idea of the surroundings to let you understand the background of the creativity of an artist. Today, as we learn about another leading woman artist, let me start by sharing a few points overlapping with her life and career. As art readers, we are well aware of the echoes of well-deserved and reputated Italian artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt over the four entire centuries, which slighted the accomplishments of other artists from different regions. The impact was particularly vast for English art when their artistry was ignored in history till the eighteenth century. You must also understand that during that time, they used to have portraiture in dominance which was considered a minor form. Amidst these conditions, even the male artists were neglected, and understandably females suffered the most. One such artist whose case point coincides with the event is Mary Beale, whom we are here for.

Article Abstract: Mary Beale.

Mary Beale was a fine and prominent portraitist whose works were often merged with confusion from Sir Peter Lely and other artists. As the daughter of a clergyman who belonged to an amateur artist, Beale studied with Robert Walker, an official painter to Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Flatman, a lawyer, poet and miniaturist. Though she was not the pupil of Lely, so she helped create duplicates of his artworks. When Lely died in 1680, Beale made copies of paintings of Lely, which were in high demand. And ironically, the accuracy of those duplicates was so precise that it even caused confusion surrounding her work. One such illustration was a portrait of John Wilkins, showing a half-length seated figure against a darker background- a classic style of portraiture.

She married Charles Beale after which she began her professional apprenticeship, continuing to paint when she had two sons. It was in 1670 that she worked as an independent artist, where her spouse helped her manage the household chores, mixing her colours and eventually becoming an art dealer. We have access to a small account of her information through the diaries of Charles, where he noted the daily activities of his prolific wife.

NameMary Beale
Birth1632, Suffolk
Death28 December 1697
MastersRobert Walker and Thomas Flatman

Discussing the Life of Mary Beale.

Mary Beale is a painter who claims respect and reputation not because of her brilliant original art but for her persevering industry and conscientious study. Born in Suffolk in 1632, she was the daughter of Mr Craddock, a minister of Walton upon Thomas. It was the same time when Anne Carlisle painted her first pictures. We do not know what inspired little Mary to be a painter as her early or previous days are unknown. However, few authorities describe that she received lessons from Vandyek, but during the period of his death, she was just nine, so this argument may scarcely need an assertion. Few other says that Sir Peter Lely might have trained her, but since he never revealed his method of painting, however, she made duplicates of his compositions, so we are unable to trace a way out of this confusion. Hence, those who assert that Mary learnt from Robert walker are apparently correct. Walker studied the Vandyek works, so he caught some of his methods, which we see in Mary’s canvases.

In possibly 1659, she married Charles Beale, son of Bartholomew Beale, in Buckinghamshire, where they blessed with a son on 28th May 1660. We know from her portraits that she looked pleasant, intelligent and good-humoured. She had a plain face with heavy expressions, gentle bearing eyes, a large nose, a smiling mouth, heavily curled hair and a rounded neck. Her husband, an obscure painter, professionally having an office under the Board of Green cloth, practised chemistry and took an interest in artistic affairs. It was after the marriage that Mary Beale started professional painting after she got enormous support from her husband. Apparently, she began taking commissions in 1662 as professionally as an artist, as we can trace from a notebook where she wrote memoranda of debts paid, implements of a painting bought and other accounts. However, there is no information on her portraits.

Mary Beale Self Portrait | Source: National Portrait Gallery, The United Kingdom
Mary Beale Self Portrait with Husband and Son | Source: Mary Beale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary was one of the most industrious-women as female artists have ever been. She copied every good Italian picture she could obtain, borrowing even Sir Peter Lely’s royal collection. And Peter took great interest in Beale’s progress, as indeed, she made duplicates of his compositions so perfectly.

Mary Beale was an eminent personage majorly renowned as a talented artist, irreproachable wife and excellent mother. The balance she made in her life following every single role was notable. Beale enjoyed privileges as Queen Henrietta Maria sat next to her, and her father was a powerful clergyman. Mary earned around two hundred pounds a year, ten per cent of which she dispersed to charity.

We know many accounts of her life through her husband’s diary, where he styled her as,

“my dearest heart.”

Estimable in characters, Mary died in Pall Mall on 28th December 1697 and was buried under the communion table in St. James’s church. There is no account of her husband’s death. However, we know that probably, he outsurvived her. Mary’s two sons, Bartholomew, became a physician and settled at Coventry, and Charles became a miniature painter.

Sketch of the Artist’s Son, Bartholomew Beale, in Profile by Mary Beale | Source: Tate
Probable Portrait of Artist’s son, Charles Beale by Mary Beale | Source: Historical Portraits

Note: The internet data on the death of Mary Beale is absolutely wrong, as I have checked from two books, one of which is English Female Artists of 1876 by Clayton and Ellen.

Brief Analysis of the Artist’s Style.

Mary painted in oil and watercolours while drawing with crayons. She painted with vigorous style, some styling and complimentary masculine with clear, fresh and natural colours. In her artworks, one can see the excellent qualities of purity and sweetness, though few critics described her paintings as heavy and stiff. If one looks closer at her works, one will notice that there was much Italian air and style in them. She excelled in portraits through colours, strengths and forces, but few condemn her portraitures as weak, wanting an expression and faith.

Looking at the Paintings Mary Commissioned.

The Portrait of A Young Girl painting dates to 1681 from the gallery of Mary. The oil painting measures 530 x 452 mm having a warmer grey colour in the background, presenting a girl in an off-shoulder silky dress in a naturalistic manner. Mary used colours of cologne earth, charcoal black, yellow and red ochres in the canvas to show her extraordinary representation of a girl on a darker background with a shadow. If you look closer, the most abnormally exceptional part of this portrait is the eyes of the girl, showing kindness and compassion through them.

Portrait of a Young Girl by Mary Beale | Source: Tate

Another painting, Portrait of a Physician, measuring 75.9 x 63.5 cm, belongs to the late seventeenth century from the artistic career of Mary. In the illustration, the pose matches a similar painting of Kneller’s portrait of shipbuilder Sir Anthony Deane holding a ship drawing. However, few other critics suggested that it may represent a physician-poet Sir Richard Blackmore or a physician Sir Edmund King. Mary has used a similar style in her portraits by using a warmer and darker background and illuminance of the subject with a glory and naturalistic approach. Furthermore, there are extraordinary details over the subject, through the gentle cloth folds, wrinkles over the face and even the shiny black hair.

Portrait of a Physician by Mary Beale | Source: Obelisk Art History

The Portrait of A Lady, having a size of 76.5 × 63.7 cm, dates back to 1680. The illustration showcases an elegant young woman with long hair flowing through her face and one shoulder. She wears a golden brown silk dress developed by a blue stole, which gives her an expensive look. The painting belongs to the mature years of Mary, where she regularly depicted her subject surrounded with faux sculpted wooden ovals. The gentle curls of hair, naturalistic blush, deep-brownish eyes and whitish skin tone are some of the attributes of the composition, which makes it astonishing.

Portrait of a Lady by Mary Beale | Source: Mary Beale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the other fantastic works from the artist are The Penitent Magdalene, Viscountess Frances Hatton and The Reverend William Cremer.

The Penitent Magdalene by Mary Beale | Source: Art Gallery of South Australia
Viscountess Frances Hatton by Mary Beale | Source: Smithsonian Institution
The Reverend William Cremer by Mary Beale | Source: Mary Beale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Final Words.

Women like Mary Beale are more than just an inspiration who beautifully took every responsibility of a loving daughter, responsible wife and kind mother, along with making her fantastic career. Certainly, the baroque artistry remained in the wonders through their mesmerising colours and beautiful naturalism.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who was Mary Beale?

Mary Beale was an English portraitist (probably the first professional female artist in England) of the Baroque period, known for her naturalist and innocent depictions. The artist enjoyed immense success during her time, allowing her to contribute to her family as well as charity.

What was Mary Beale’s Style?

Naturalist Portraiture.

How many artworks did Mary paint?

While Mary Beale painted numerous artworks that still remain a mystery, the clearly recognized paintings are close to 2000.

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