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Godfrey Kneller, Self-portrait

Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet (8 August 1646 – 19 October 1723) was the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was court painter to British monarchs from Charles II to George I. His major works include The Chinese Convert (1687); a series of four portraits of Isaac Newton painted at various junctures of the latter's life; a series of ten reigning European monarchs, including King Louis XIV of France; over 40 "Kit-cat portraits" of members of the Kit-Cat Club; and ten "beauties" of the court of William III, to match a similar series of ten beauties of the court of Charles II painted by his predecessor as court painter, Sir Peter Lely.



Sir John Vanbrugh in Kneller's Kit-cat portrait, considered one of Kneller's finest portraits.

Kneller was born Gottfried Kniller in Lübeck, Germany. Kneller studied in Leiden, but became a pupil of Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He then traveled with his brother John Zacharias Kneller, who was an ornamental painter, to Rome and Venice in the early 1670s, painting historical subjects and portraits, and later moved to Hamburg. They came to England in 1674, at the invitation of the Duke of Monmouth. He was introduced to, and painted a portrait of, Charles II. In England, Kneller concentrated almost entirely on portraiture. He founded a studio which churned out portraits on an almost industrial scale, relying on a brief sketch of the face with details added to a formulaic model, aided by the fashion for gentlemen to wear full wigs. His portraits set a pattern that was followed until William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds.

Nevertheless, he established himself as a leading portrait artist in England. When Sir Peter Lely died in 1680, Kneller was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II. In the 1690s, Kneller painted the Hampton Court Beauties depicting the most glamorous ladies-in-waiting of the Royal Court for which he received his knighthood from William III. He produced a series of "Kit-cat" portraits of 48 leading politicians and men of letters, members of the Kit-Cat Club. Created a baronet by King George I, he was also head of the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing 1711-1716 in Great Queen Street, London. His paintings were praised by Whig luminaries such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope.

Detail of Kneller's portrait of the politician and poet Edmund Waller

Kneller died of fever in 1723 and his remains were interred in Twickenham Church (he was a churchwarden there when the 14th century nave collapsed in 1713 and was involved in the plans for its reconstruction).[1] The site of the house he built in 1709 in Whitton near Twickenham is now occupied by the mid-19th century Kneller Hall, home of the Royal Military School of Music.


In his hometown Lübeck there are works to be seen in the St. Annen Museum and in Saint Catherine Church. His former works at St. Mary's Church were destroyed by the Bombing of Lübeck 1942.

Isaac Newton in a 1689 portrait by Godfrey Kneller.


See also

Court offices
Preceded by
Sir Peter Lely
Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King
Succeeded by
William Kent

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

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 1680, 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 172 3, 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 commonplaces 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.)

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