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SIR GODFREY KNELLER (1648-1723)

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Originally appearing in Volume V15, Page 850 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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SIR GODFREY KNELLER (1648-1723), a portrait painter whose celebrity belongs chiefly to England, was born in Lubeck in the duchy of Holstein, of an ancient family, on the 8th of August 1648. He was at first intended for the army, and was sent to Leyden to learn mathematics and fortification. Showing, however, a marked preference for the fine arts, he studied in the school of Rembrandt, and under Ferdinand Bol in Amsterdam. In 1672 he removed to Italy, directing his chief attention to Titian and the Caracci; Carlo Maratta gave him some guidance and encouragement. In Rome, and more especially in Venice, Kneller earned considerable reputation by historical paintings as well as portraits. He next went to Hamburg, painting with still increasing success. In 1674 he came to England at the invitation of the duke of Monmouth, was introduced to Charles II., and painted that sovereign, much to his satisfaction, several times. Charles also sent him to Paris, to take the portrait of Louis XIV. When Sir Peter Lely died in 168o, Kneller, who produced in England little or nothing in the historical department, remained without a rival in the ranks of portrait painting; there was no native-born competition worth speaking of. Charles appointed him court painter; and he continued to hold the same post into the days of George I. Under William III. (1692) he was made a knight, under George I. (1715) a baronet, and by order of the emperor Leopold I. a knight of the Roman Empire. Not only his court favour but his general fame likewise was large: he was lauded by Dryden, Addison, Steele, Prior, Tickell and Pope. Kneller's gains also were very considerable; aided by habits of frugality which approached stinginess, he left property yielding an annual income of £2000. His industry was maintained till the last. His studio had at first been in Covent Garden, but in his closing years he lived in Kneller Hall, Twickenham. He died of fever, the date being generally given as the 7th of November 1723, though some accounts say 1726. He was buried in Twickenham church, and has a monument in Westminster Abbey. An elder brother, John Zachary Kneller, an ornamental painter, had accompanied Godfrey to England, and had died in 1702. The style of Sir Godfrey Kneller as a portrait painter represented the decline of that art as practised by Vandyck; Lely marks the first grade of descent, and Kneller the second. His works have much freedom, and are well drawn and coloured; but they are mostly slight in manner, and to a great extent monotonous, this arising partly from the habit which he had of lengthening the oval of all his heads. The colouring may be called brilliant rather than true. He indulged much in the common-places of allegory; and, though he had a quality of dignified elegance not unallied with simplicity, genuine simple nature is seldom to be traced in his works. His fame has greatly declined, and could not but do so after the advent of Reynolds. Among Kneller's principal paintings are the "Forty-three Celebrities of the Kit-Cat Club," and the " Ten Beauties of the Court of William III.," now at Hampton Court; these were painted by order of the queen; they match, but match unequally, the " Beauties of the Court of Charles II.," painted by Lely. He executed altogether the likenesses of ten sovereigns, and fourteen of his works appear in the National Portrait Gallery. It is said that Kneller's own favourite performance was the portrait of the " Converted Chinese " in Windsor Castle. His later works are confined almost entirely to England, not more than two or three specimens having gone abroad after he had settled here. (W. M. R.)
End of Article: SIR GODFREY KNELLER (1648-1723)
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