Sir Godfrey Kneller was the most acclaimed portrait painter in England from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. He painted four monarchs during his lifetime, including Charles II.
The subject of this work, Hortense Mancini (the Duchess of Mazarin) was born in Rome in 1640. She was the niece of Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France under Louis XVI. Besides her great beauty, she was known for her independent character and love of danger. She was a compulsive gambler, who enjoyed sword fighting and shooting.
The Duchess is probably best remembered in England for being one of Charles IIís many mistresses. She persuaded the King to give her a £4,000 yearly pension. This allowed her to live in luxury in her Chelsea home, where she died in 1699, aged 59.
Kneller was well known for his skill in capturing the true likeness of his sitters. Working in his studio, he would paint the head or face only, as his assistants were trained to paint in the clothes and landscape or interior backgrounds.
The pose of the sitter was often based on classical models such as Greek statues. The statues' poses were copied by generations of artists. Sitters could even choose how they wanted to be shown from a list of poses. During Knellerís time only the rich could afford to have their portraits painted, and portraits were symbols of high social status.