Oil on canvas; 44 ½ by 35 ½ in; 113 x 90 cm; held in a giltwood baroque style frame
Provenance: Hon John Gordon M.P.(1850-1915); Rev. J. M. Apperley, 1904; Private Collection, England
This charming portrait of a lady was previously believed to be by Sir Peter Lely but is actually closest in style to that of his chief assistant William Wissing, who moved from the Hague to England in 1676. After Lely’s death in 1680, he emerged as his most important pupil and quickly became a strong rival to the ruling portraitist of the period Godfrey Kneller.
Swathed in silk, the lady in this portrait moves forward to us whilst a parrot playfully engages her. The bird is no doubt an allegory based on purity as the parrot in earlier times was linked to virginity and features in early representations of the Garden of Eden, such as Durer’s great early sixteenth-century engraving of `The Fall of Man’. Later in Holland, parrots stood for status, becoming the avian equivalent of the tulip – brightly coloured, highly sought after and subtly symbolic of the reach and spread of Dutch maritime trade and economic power.
These are innocent parrots but later representations of the bird are fraught with erotic meaning. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the parrot – having once symbolised Eve – became instead an image of sexual lust and longing. And so in this portrait we see a blushing young lady, dressed in the purity of white silk, staring directly at us whilst the bird she almost caresses looks out at the spectator with a sharp, proprietorial gaze.