Portrait of Oliver Cromwell

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  • Artist: Sir Peter Lely, Afterwork by: Samuel Cooper
  • London, England
  • probably 1653-1658
  • Oil on Canvas, framed
  • Acquisition partially funded by an anonymous donor
  • 1993-54,A

Oliver Cromwell played a prominent role in one of the greatest upheavals of British history and, today, remains as controversial a figure as he was in his own time. Some label him a regicidal dictator, while others praise his espousal of republican values. More background relevant to his biography appears in text associated with a portrait of King Charles I (1600-1649) that also hangs in the gallery.

When difficulties between Charles and Parliament erupted in Civil War, Cromwell entered the fray on the side of the Roundheads, or Parliamentarians, rising from command of a single cavalry troop to control of the entire army. Ultimately victorious, he became the third person to sign Charles's death warrant, the fulfillment of which effectively terminated England's monarchy. In 1653, Cromwell assumed the title Lord Protector of the Realm. (Beneath this likeness, the letters "Ptor" following Cromwell's name signify "Protector").

Demand for likenesses of Cromwell increased dramatically once he was named Lord Protector. His best known portraitist was Samuel Cooper, for whom he sat several times beginning in 1649. Yet Cooper was a miniaturist, unable or unwilling to supply full-scale images. At a time when artists derived inspiration from --- and even copied --- one another's designs without fear of legal infringement, it is not surprising that Sir Peter Lely enlarged and adapted one of Cooper's small images to create Colonial Williamsburg's oil on canvas, which is one of at least four known.

Lely emigrated from Holland to London several years before war in England broke out, but he developed no direct connections with Charles I. Thus, when Cromwell assumed power, the artist skirted any suggestion of shifting political allegiance and, in ensuing years, rose to artistic prominence. His popularity further survived --- indeed, it waxed --- following the collapse of the Commonwealth. Cromwell's son, Richard, failed to maintain stability following his father's death, paving the way for reestablishment of a monarchy. War-sick Londoners welcomed Charles II when he occupied the city in 1660, and his crowning the following year met widespread joy. Noted for marked tolerance, Charles II appointed Lely his official "Limner and Picture Drawer," which post the artist held until his death.

Fate was not so kind to Cromwell. When the Lord Protector died, he was buried with all due honor in Westminster Abbey, but public attitudes changed with the restoration of the monarchy. In 1661, Cromwell's corpse was exhumed and ritualistically beheaded, the body being hung in chains and the head displayed on a pole. The former was eventually thrown into a pit; the latter grisly trophy changed hands numerous times before it was finally buried in the twentieth century.

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