|Women in Art
In patriarchal Tudor England, women were seen as weak, lacking intelligence, and often as creatures of vanity. In order to lecture women about what was good and bad, many painters in the sixteenth century portrayed the conflict between what was seen as the vices and virtues in women. The “good” women were usually portrayed wearing simple and dark colored dresses while attending activities that were though suitable for women, such as spinning or sewing. The “bad” women, however, were illustrated as wearing colorful and revealing clothing, and occupying their time by playing games or music and flirting with men (Salomon 74).
Thus, when Elizabeth I became queen of England, she understood the importance of controlling the way she was portrayed. Due to this control, Elizabeth created an almost mythical image of herself that her subjects embraced and glorified. Not only was Queen Elizabeth a great artist herself, but more importantly, her strong personality influenced and inspired the arts and culture in England to reach new heights. Elizabeth became the “imperial votress” (2.1.163) in the center of an artistic circle of writers and painters that bloomed in what became known as “the golden age.”
The Royal Image
The growth of nationalism in
the early sixteenth century helped to develop the state portrait as an
art form. The royal image was supposed to illustrate power and greatness
to the nation’s subjects, and the distribution of the royal image could
be seen in paint, stone, print, and metal (Salomon 65). Although the style
of Elizabeth’s portraits has been described in various ways, the qualities
relate to the art form of mannerism. Elizabeth’s choice of using mannerism
to represent her shows how present and aware she was about the different
art forms that existed.
The "Rainbow" Portrait
Symbols of Elizabeth’s virginity
were clearly illustrated in most paintings of her. One of these paintings
was the famous “Rainbow” portrait (fig.
1), which was painted after 1600, and is attributed to the Netherlandish
artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.
Throughout her reign, Elizabeth
carefully nurtured and loved her nation, and she guarded her power with
great jealousy, afraid that it would all be taken away from her. After
all, she was “just” a woman in a time when England wanted to see power
in the hands of men and not women. Therefore, the eyes and ears may symbolize
the observant Queen who does not miss anything that is happening in her
The "Ditchley" Portrait
Another famous painting of
Elizabeth that illustrates her power and protection over her nation is
the “Ditchley” portrait (fig.
2), again, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger around 1592 (Salomon
83). Here Elizabeth is portrayed like a mystical fairy, dressed in a white
gown, with decorations behind her shoulders that can be associated with
fairy wings. The idea that Elizabeth was a descendant from
Brutus and King Arthur was emphasized during this period, and both poets
and painters idealized Elizabeth with a sense of mystique. She was a powerful
woman that could decide whether to give men privileges that would make
them wealthy or take away all power that the men had. Her power made people
fear her and at the same time admire and adore her.
The wisdom and understanding of the Queen is apparent in the Latin texts in the painting that state, “She gives and does not expect,” “In giving back she increases,” and “She can but does not take revenge” (Leahy 4). It is said that the portrait was ordered by Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s retired Champion of the horses, as a gift of forgiveness for taking a mistress after his wife died. Elizabeth often showed her displeasure about her courtiers’ relationships. Thus, Sir Henry Lee knew that it displeased Elizabeth that he had taken a mistress but he hoped that Elizabeth would be understanding about his action.
Elizabeth I and A Midsummer Night's Dream
Many of Elizabeth’s admirers
sought power and patronage, and they glorified her in any way possible.
Poets like Edmund Spencer and Sir John Davies idealized her in epic and
poetry. Courtiers like Sir Henry Lee entertained the Queen at his estate,
and explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh praised their
Virgin Queen in the new colonies that they conquered (Labriola 2).
In conclusion, Queen Elizabeth’s
strong personality and absolute power over her nation gave her reigning
years the name “The Golden Age.” It was a creative time where painters,
writers and other artists flourished. In the center of this artistic circle
stood Elizabeth with her head held high. She ruled with sovereignty over
all the people in the patriarchal England, and inspired people to be, and
create, more than what they could ever have dreamed of.