The Queen's Portraits
THE RAINBOW PORTRAIT
Although there are few portraits of Elizabeth as princess, many portraits survive of her as Queen. Some earlier portraits may have been lost over the years, but in all probability very few were produced. Elizabeth, the "illegitimate" daughter of the king by the brazen Anne Boleyn who died a traitor's death, was simply not important enough for there to be a great demand for her picture. However, once she was Queen, paintings of her flourished. She was now the most important person in the land, and the nobility of England would have a portrait on display in their great houses as a symbol of loyalty to her. Her portrait still hangs in many of them today.
Many portraits of the Queen are instantly recognizable, for she would usually be painted wearing a crown, showing that she was the Queen, as well as having other symbols of power in her paintings such as a sword of state. Not all paintings were large. In fact, some were very small (known as miniatures) and were worn in jewellery. Noblemen or women also wore these as symbols of loyalty.
The way the Queen was painted changed over the course of her reign. In the early years, the Queen was painted very simply, with little symbolism or even Majesty, to convey that she was the monarch. In some paintings she looks perhaps like any other wealthy Elizabethan woman.
However, as the Queen's popularity grew, there was an increasing request for portraits, and so more and more were produced. Only painters commissioned by the Queen were allowed to paint her - such as Nicholas Hilliard or Isaac Oliver - but other artists often copied the final paintings, which is why there are sometimes several copies of a portrait varying in quality and likeness. If the Queen was not happy with a portrait, then she would have it destroyed. This was not entirely governed by vanity, as has been suggested in the past, but because the Queen was very conscious of her public image. She wanted only good portraits produced to reflect her regal status, and also because some people might never get to see her in person, and so it was vitally important that the portrait impressed them. Poor ones, or those that did not show the Queen at her best, would not do that. The style of the Queen's portraits also changed because of the new painting techniques that the artists were developing. The Renaissance had brought with it a whole new attitude to painting, and techniques were becoming more sophisticated, resulting in more life like, elaborate, paintings. The beginnings of this can be seen in the reign of Henry VII, as his portraits are of much better quality than his medieval predecessors.
The combination of the Renaissance and the Queen's almost mythical popularity resulted in portraits that are full of symbolism. The portraits were very much a part of what has been called "The Cult of Elizabeth", which is essentially the idea that the fossilising of the celebration of Elizabeth as "The Virgin Queen", the sacred one, the deliverer of the people, was very much a propaganda campaign by the government to win the loyalty of the people. This view was advanced by Roy Strong in his influential book The Cult of Elizabeth. In recent years, however, his ideas have received a lot of criticism, and is it an ongoing debate as to whether Elizabeth's reputation as "The Virgin Queen" was due to a deliberate propaganda campaign, or whether it was a genuine tribute to the successful and popular Queen by her people.
Roy Strong has also produced a book that looks entirely at the portraits of the Queen: Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately it is no longer in print, but should be available in many college libraries.
To see more portraits of the Queen go to the collection at The National Portrait Gallery