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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
I/ Early Modern Aesthetics: Light and Lustre

“Medieval” and “Modern” Conceptions of the Colours of Light in Early Modern England and Isaac Oliver’s Portrait Miniatures



La distinction habituelle entre ornement et naturalisme est traditionnelle lorsque les œuvres de Nicholas Hilliard, et son traité The Arte of Limning (c. 1600), sont comparés à l’œuvre d’Isaac Oliver, son élève. Cependant, le contexte culturel de l’art du portrait de cour en miniature à la fin du XVIe siècle en Angleterre comporte aussi un autre débat entre deux théories. Pour l’une la lumière est un rayon, pour l’autre la lumière est une limite entre deux couleurs. Ces deux théories traitent de notre perception de la couleur comme lumière, ou inversement.
Plusieurs miniatures seront citées dans cet article, mais il y sera plus particulièrement question de deux portraits en miniature par Isaac Oliver qui datent de la fin de sa carrière, alors qu’il était reconnu non plus seulement comme l’élève d’Hilliard mais aussi comme un artiste indépendant : John Donne (1616) et Head of Christ (c. 1610).

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1The name of Isaac Oliver (c. 1560-1617) has been closely associated with Nicholas Hilliard’s (1547-1619) in the history of Elizabethan and Jacobean court miniature portraits and cabinet miniatures (Edmond 84-92). Jill Finsten divides Oliver’s miniatures into periods. During the pre-1587 period (1581-1587), Oliver would seem to have been working in a “Hilliardesque mode” (Finsten vol.1, 89), after which his work began to bear signs of an independent style as, for example Diederik Sonoy (1588) (Strong 1983, cat. 140), reaching in the 1600s a ‘highly idiosyncratic sculptural style’ showing an effect of ‘insubstantiality’ (Finsten vol.1, 163, n.3).

2This evolution has also been described by Graham Reynolds, but in different terms: according to this art historian, Hilliard “worked in brilliant sunshine” and Oliver “in a blacked-out studio with the light of one candle on his sitter’s face”, calling the former’s manner “ornamental”, by which he seems to point out Hilliard’s own insusbstantiality, and the latter’s manner “realistic” (Reynolds, 22-23). In addition, Finsten points out that Oliver “was perceived, specifically by his patroness Queen Anne of Denmark (not, significantly, King James) as being the most sophisticated and indeed, complicated artist then working in England” (Finsten vol. 1, 117-18).

3In this paper, I will in turn reassess the evolving style of the two painters by trying to understand how they used light to create a variety of specific colour effects against the background of early modern English aesthetics.

1. The colours of light in medieval aesthetics

4The usual distinction between ornamental and naturalistic styles is traditional when Nicholas Hilliard’s works as well as his treatise The Art of Limning (c. 1600) are compared to Isaac Oliver’s, his pupil. Here, I will be following John Pecham’s Perspectiva Communis (1482), a sum of the medieval science of optics in medieval England (Lindberg, “Introduction to Pecham”, 31). There are noticeable similarities between this printed work in Latin and Hilliard’s treatise, and such similarities are also traceable in his miniature portraits and in Oliver’s Hilliardesque style.

5My thesis, in this paper, is different from John Pope-Hennessy’s established assessment on the treatise, which proves the influence of Haydocke’s earlier translation of Lomazzo (Hilliard 51, 57, 69). Indeed, I would like to suggest that the cultural context of the miniature court portrait in early modern England is also the vehicle of complementary but distinct medieval traditions, one defining light as rays, the other defining light as the limit between two colours. In either theory, the core of the subject is our perception of colours as/of/in light.

1.1. Light as rays: lux, lumen, radius, splendor

6In the last medieval treatise on painting usually opposed to Alberti’s Trattato as the first modern book on painting, John Pecham’s approach of light is closely related to Dante’s. Indeed, in his poem Vita Nuova (1293-1294), Beatrice appears first in a chromatic mode and then as pure light, and Sophie Longuet reminds us that Thomas Aquinas uses different words such as lux (light as an agent, an entity), lumen (light illuminating the body, making it visible), radius (light touches a solid body), and splendor or fulgor (light is reflected on a solid body) (Longuet 8-9). When Beatrice appears in red, i.e. with colour, she is the direct expression of light in the sensible world since colours are contained in light (Longuet 9). John Pecham discusses all these traits in terms of geometry. To him, the theory of rays must be restricted to their origin in luminous bodies (Pecham 62-63), and this is true of light rays as well as colour rays. Light exists independently from colours but is connected to them.

7Actually, these four modes of perception of light, though medieval, were still common practice in Tudor England, as Hilliard’s works show. In Pecham’s opening paragraph, as translated by Lindberg, one finds these four aspects of light and colours: first that light is an agent since it hurts our eye, luces fortes, second that it makes bodies visible, since we perceive them differently in a darker place, minoris luminis, maioris luminis, third that it touches solid bodies as rays, radii, and fourth that light gives us the impression of seeing a luminous body, ipso luminoso (Pecham, Part I, I [1], 62-63).

1.2. Light as a limit between colours

8Our perception of light and colours is also theorised by Pecham as the perception of the contrast between colours, such as white and black, or of the limit between colours, as in the rainbow. To Pecham, this is the proof of the existence of a transparent medium, such as air, water, or the transparent matter of stones (rock crystal, diamond). The rays of light are modified in their angle, their reflection, and so are colours. Thus, for instance, the blue of the sky signifies both distance and time (Pecham 131, 135).

1.3. Two conceptions of beauty in relation to light and colours

9This implies a difference in our perception of beauty (splendor) – e.g. when Beatrice appears to Dante in all her beauty, it is first in a red dress, and the second time wearing a white one (Longuet 36). As Pecham shows, the geometrical theory of light and colours as rays (radii) leads to the theory of chiaroscuro as a visual strategy to capture “beauty” (another word for likeness in this context), reaching its climax with Leonardo’s treatise of shadows as its best exponent. As to the theory of light as the perception of different colours, it again reaches its best practice with Leonardo’s art of sfumato in which the contour of the form blends with its ground or medium.

10Hilliard rejected these conclusive views about beauty: to chiaroscuro, he opposes the absence of shadows and celebrates the truth of the line as opposed to sfumato. He nevertheless clearly believes in Pecham’s teaching, in particular in the observation of the reflection of rays on solid bodies, or their diffraction in transparent mediums. Thus, the comparison I propose to establish between the two following miniature portraits by Oliver at the end of his life will try to show both Hilliard’s medieval aesthetics of light and the Flemish as well as Italian modern schools of colours and light in Isaac Oliver’s art.

1.4. The case of the two late portraits by Isaac Oliver

11Two portrait miniatures by Isaac Oliver when he was at the height of his reputation not only as Hilliard’s pupil but also as an independent artist, will be considered here, namely John Donne (1616)1 and the Head of Christ (c. 1610).2 With the Head of Christ, which is dated by Murrell after Oliver’s trip to Italy, one sees that the sfumato effect is now achieved with “soft, close stipples which seem to presage the pointillist manner of later mannerist painters” (Murrell 44). Yet at the same period, Oliver was able to revert to his earlier, Hilliardesque manner of firm hatching and stipples strengthening the ascetic features of the poet in his portrait of the metaphysical poet John Donne.

12In other words, Oliver’s style is representative of different aspects of the conflicting aesthetics which have been detailed above, the ‘ornamental’ (John Donne) and the ‘true’ picture (Head of Christ), while the first sitter’s identity is paradoxically a contemporary and eminently influential poet sitting in the artist’s presence, and the religious icon is on the contrary the mere fruit of the artist’s imagination, notwithstanding the fact that he must have used a model in his studio, as his drawings show.

2. The dialectics of light and colours in the miniature portrait

13As specialists have already shown (Colding 1953, Murrell 1983), the portrait miniature by Hilliard is intimately connected to the transmission of recipes in workshops. Book illuminations, and in particular the Flemish school, whose representatives settled in England with the advent of the Tudors, bear witness to this filiation. From my standpoint, these works, which have been divided into two groups, i.e. the ornamental borders and the scene or historia illustrating the text (since the artists were specialised in either one or the other), testify to the four aspects of light and colour recalled above.

2.1. Lux in ornamented manuscript borders and Horenbout’s Henry VIII (c. 1525) portrait miniature

14As Murdoch writes, “Hilliard did not invent these [practical processes]. He was taught them. […] Elizabethan art of limning is lineally descended from the manuscript workshops of Ghent and Bruges during the golden age of the Dukes of Burgundy” (Murdoch 25). As for Murrell, he describes the decorated border of the independent Fitzwilliam portrait of Henry VIII (Lucas Horenbout, c. 1525-26), which shows that the ornamental book painting has been transposed as a suitable frame to the true likeness of the Tudor monarch:

[T]he background colour of the border is vermilion which, like the blue backgrounds of this and other portraits, is very smoothly floated. The angels are drawn in lines and hatches of gold over a brown ochre ground […]. [T]he prototypes for the border and angels can be found in the decorated books of the Ghent-Bruges school (Murrell 1983, 19).

15Another example comes from a book of hours which has medallions of saints in the border, thereby recalling the circular medallion frame of the Henry VIII miniature (Murrell 1983, 19 and ill. 1). It is precisely the pseudo-archaic form of the border decoration used for the ‘true’ portrait of the sitter which must be pointed out since it appears at odds with the naturalism of Horenbout’s portrait.

16As Baltrusaitis studies the ornamental style of roman art in La Stylistique ornementale dans la sculpture romane, he examines similar examples: the page border frames the angels in the Henry VIII portrait, just as the architectural form frames the silhouettes in cathedral sculpture (Baltrusaitis 358). The angels tend to fill the triangular frame by their elongated form, as if geometry was the intermediary form which materialized the invisible and the divine in the winged human figures. The use of gold transposes in a chromatic palette the primary function of the geometrical pattern into the contour and the relief of these angels. Light and the divine (i.e. lux) both materialize not through any imitation of appearance, but by means of the abstract quality of ornament, which depends on geometry and gold (or radius) to signify the invisible. The perfection of geometry in Hilliard’s composition is even more explicit when the frame becomes oval (Costa de Beauregard 1991, 165, fig. 48; 187-221).

2.2. Lumen in English flesh colour

17Both styles, the ornamental and the naturalistic, are dependent on the colours of light, or invisible light as captured by visible colours. Regarding the naturalist miniatures encased within the borders of the page, Murrell writes further on:

[I]n the naturalistic paintings of the Ghent-Bruges school of illustrators light is all important; it is a diffused light which models the forms gently by subtle changes of tone and colour rather than by using shadow (Murrell 21).

  • 3 The same motif also attributed to the Horenbout studio is illustrated in black and white in Murdoch (...)

18The border represents light with hatches of gold for invisible beings, angels,3 while the naturalistic carnation of the sitter is rendered by “painting the features with touches of transparent colour over an opaque carnation ground” (Murrell 20).

19This rendering of the sitter’s complexion to create its lights and volume was considered to be exclusively English in origin. While, according to Edward Norgate, “[t]he Italians use no ground at all but work the complexion upon the bare parchment without more ado” (Norgate 68), the English resort to prepared grounds of flesh tints. Norgate indeed describes the preparation of grounds of several different hues imitating the variety of natural complexions: “in this Art of Limning, there is no heightening in a face, but the ground itself serves for heightening” (Norgate 68). This means that the ground had to be sufficiently pale so that it would represent the highest lights of the face (Norgate 138, note 71 by Murrell).

  • 4 Lucas Horenbout, Henry VIII, 1525-1526, from a charter in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Website: http://e (...)

20This English technique so highly valued by Norgate was to endure in miniatures painted on vellum for two hundred years after the earliest works of Horenbout, who was using a technique taught by limners of the Ghent-Bruges school (Paget 396-402). Strikingly, the rendering of the volume of the sitter’s face is entrusted to ‘lights’, i.e. the pure flesh tint ground, a technique which is a special English studio secret. Horenbout’s Henry VIII4 provides a rather good example of the dialectics of colours and light, the technique aiming here at the capturing of the ‘lights’ of a volume by the colouring of a given ground for the flesh tint which must remain pure of shadowing where light as lumen illuminates the body and makes it visible.

  • 5 Lucas Horenbout, Hans Holbein the Younger, after a self-portrait (circular, 42 mm diameter), The Wa (...)

21As to Horenbout’s copy of Holbein’s self-portrait,5 it shows the use of a uniform ultramarine blue smoothly floated in the background. This is an appropriate symbolic background for the new genre, the court miniature portrait, and it is all the more significant as it is believed that Lucas Horenbout initiated not only Holbein to the technique of miniature painting, though the latter was soon to evolve his own style (ibid.), but also Levina Teerlinc, who was Simon Benninck’s daughter. The connection between the Elizabethan court miniaturists and Horenbout’s works (Murrell 49, 20-24), as well as the influence of the Flemish painter on Levina Teerlinc’s own work, have both been clearly established. Levina Teerlinc was the most prominent limner from Henry VIII’s later years until well into Elizabeth I’s reign, and she is thought to have taught her art of limning to Nicholas Hilliard (Auerbach 1954, 187-8).

  • 6 Blue is also the colour for air in Alberti’s Della Pittura. Alberti, relying perhaps on Pliny, assu (...)

22Now, the use of blue for the background undoubtedly has a scientific significance, as is shown by Aristotle’s influential theory according to which the air would be blue.6 According to Aristotle’s De Sensu (Kucharski 355-90), the diaphanous quality is not only a property of transparent elements, but a nature and a power which is also present in composed bodies such as colours — an idea later found in Pecham (129). Yet, this blue ground, traditionally of French origin (Costa de Beauregard 2000, 199-201), also proceeds from an aesthetic choice, and our perception of light is due to the difference between colours (here, blue/pink/white/black) (Pecham 131). In this context, Hilliard’s theory of pure colours appears as a defence of pure light inherited from the cultural practices of workshops and from the knowledge of optics found precisely in Pecham’s work.

2.3. Jewels and bright colours: fulgor or splendor

  • 7 Nicholas Hilliard, Self-Portrait (aged 30), 1577, Watercolour on vellum, Victoria and Albert Museum (...)

23When looking at Hilliard’s 1577 self-portrait7 and Horenbout’s copy of Holbein’s own, one better understands the survival of the ornamental dimension of the miniature which is translated from the book illumination into the court portrait. Along with their apprenticeship from the Horenbout workshop, the two miniaturists were proficient in the art and technique of engraving (Auerbach 1961). The frame of the court portrait miniatures is painted with gold and underscored by the additional calligraphy in gold letters, which recalls the ornamental borders of manuscript illuminated pages (Murrell 1983, 33). Hilliard refers to shadowing in limning as “hatching” in imitation of some fine, well engraved portraiture of Albert Dürer (Hilliard 51), a craft which ought to be practised before limning with the point of the pencil, e.g. a very thin brush (Murrell 1983, 76-79). In engraving, lights are conveyed by the ground left untouched, which is similar to the flesh tint ground technique attributed to the Horenbout School.

  • 8 See for instance Hilliard’s Heneage Jewel (c. 1595): enameled gold, table-cut diamonds, Burmese rub (...)

24Moreover, both Hilliard and Oliver spent their lives among goldsmiths. This craft was widespread among the Flemish artists in England, and it is significant that Hilliard was known as an embosser of medals of gold (Auerbach 1931, 207-14) and even Holbein is credited with designs for jewels as well as illuminating book initials (Pächt 1944, 137). The approach to the beauty of colours in terms of “shining” (Barasch 82) is understandable in a practice in which burnished and engraved gold was central (Murrell 1983, 12-13). As to the brightness of colours which Hilliard attempts to establish by drawing a parallel between his five colours (murrey, red, blue, green, yellow) and gems (amethyst, ruby, saphir, emerald, topaze) (Hilliard 80-92), it clearly connotes splendor or fulgor, i.e. light reflected on a solid body. When Pecham writes, for example, that “[p]rimary and pure secondary light and unmixed colours rebound from the surfaces of dense bodies” (Pecham 157) because light is an agent that hits and hurts the eye, one becomes suddenly aware of the part played by “dense bodies” in Hilliard’s view of precious stones as sources of light.8

  • 9 Isaac Oliver, Self-Portrait, c. 1590, watercolour on vellum, 2 1/2 in. x 2 in. (64 mm x 51 mm) oval (...)

25Contrariwise, it seems that for Oliver, there are no dense bodies but a medium which turns out to be both dense and transparent, e.g. atmosphere. His self-portrait shows for example how colours depend on darkness and light to make the figure visible, just as Pecham writes of colours that we perceive them differently in a darker place (Pecham 62-63).9

3. The portrait: the capturing of human likeness and the capturing of light by colours

26The task of the painter is to capture an image of the true likeness of the sitter by strategies either in recipes or in composition which capture colours and light. But, as will be seen below, conventions of a cultural kind also contribute to the end-product.

3.1. The court portrait or miniature ‘ritualised’

  • 10 See for instance one of them, Anne of Cleves (1539), now at the Louvre Museum. Website: http://en.w (...)

27In the portrait, the dialectics between light and colour is partly subject to the debate between panel painting and canvas painting in oil versus gouache painting on vellum. Its small size gives miniature another connotation, i.e. the reduction to very small dimensions of a larger original oil-painting which bears the weight of authority. Examples of such a context for the gouache miniature portrait are found with Holbein’s oil and miniature portraits of Anne of Cleves the same year (1539) (Costa de Beauregard 1991 65-70, ill. 19-20),10 and the later equivalent in Charles IX in oil (1565) and in miniature by François Clouet (1572) (Colding 75, fig. 1).

28A study of the institutionalised practices of colours and light will now help elucidate Hilliard’s adamant defence of shadow-less white as the best colour to express light and Oliver’s own discovery of white in chiaroscuro and sfumato for the same purpose.

3.2. A moralised hierarchy or the hegemony of white

  • 11 The Tudor and Jacobean miniature portrait therefore relies on the beholder’s competence to decipher (...)

29The theories of optics to explain our vision and the nature of colours and light in early modern English royal portraits also have a moral counterpart which is expressed in the colour scale, the lighter being nearer pure light and the darker being further from it. In terms of reception, the beholder’s psychological equivalent translates into the body (the eye), the mind (imagination), and the intellect (abstract ideas) (Ringbom 15). These three levels of psychological experience depicting the beholder’s competence as elevation from the merely physical presence in front of an image to the imaginary representation of the holy presence, and ultimately to the intellectual deciphering of a message about a moral value, i.e. a virtue, are given a hierarchical moral order.11 In this moralising of the spectator’s experience in front of a religious icon, the type of experience arousing emotions becomes the lowest level of viewing such a picture, the understanding of the transfer by the painter and the use of colours of an original image from the prototype to the image or copy is more elevated because it is a mental representation of the original, and the highest level is the knowledge of a superior quality or initiation to moral values per se as aspects of Truth or Divine Light.

3.3. The dramatic functions of the portrait

  • 12 For the early history of the apologies along didactic lines, see Kitzinger 83-150 and Ringbom 11.

30However, because they claim to be portraits, thereby implying a faithful likeness of the sitter, the Tudor miniatures are the secular counterpart of the view throughout the Middle Ages that images of holy characters were legitimate.12 As Sixten Ringbom reminds us, several functions of the religious image of a biblical character were then recognized (Ringbom 11):
- Didactic knowledge, which implies learning what to adore from the story rendered by the image;
- The presence of the absent character or adoration by proxy: the honour shown to the image is transferred to the prototype, and whoever honours an image actually honours the person represented by it, in the case of cult images understood as portraits;
- The emotional devotion such portraits were likely to inspire.

31These are summed up in three stages called by Ringbom “the didactic”, “the cultic” and “the emphatic” (ibid.). My contention is that we can draw a parallel between these three stages of experience for the beholder and the three categories of the spectator of a tragedy: aisthesis (knowledge), poiesis (the form of the tragedy and the bringing to life of the absent characters by the acting) and catharsis (the emotions of pity and fear), i.e. the seminal Aristotelian model.

  • 13 See for instance Hilliard’s miniature portrait of Alice (Alice Brandon, Mrs Hilliard, 1578), his fi (...)

32In his treatise, Hilliard devotes a paragraph to this third function of the portrait. He compares this emotion to that of the beholder of a precious stone, which echoes his practice as a goldsmith (Costa de Beauregard 2000, passim). He is discussing what he calls “countenance”, meaning “grace” and the “soul”: “who seeth an excellent precious stone, or discerneth an excellent piece of music […] and is not moved?” Recommending even “to turn away our eyes from beauty of human shape, lest it inflame the mind”, the limner follows the moral hierarchy quoted above while acknowledging the dramatic impact of the human face on the observer, which I regard as a horizontal semiotic system of values (Hilliard 57). Incidentally, Hilliard goes as far as claiming that English women… are the most beautiful to paint (Hilliard 53).13

3.4 The English Plea Rolls and the first English royal Icons

33The secular portraits on official documents obey the three functions discussed above in an interesting manner. One finds such arguments in the Tudor official discourse justifying the use of the royal effigy in portraits, while these also had to be satisfactory to the eye — as Oliver’s failure versus Hilliard’s success in creating an acceptable likeness of Queen Elizabeth I show (Strong 1987, passim). They allowed one’s imagination to make the invisible (absent) visible (present), and one’s intellect to identify qualities such as virtue (e.g. the Virgin Queen) or power (e.g. the Armada victory), which gave these portraits an emblematic significance.

34Erna Auerbach offers us detailed descriptions of the first English royal portraits in early modern England. Henry VI, Edward IV, and Henry VII (1465) are full-length portraits in the initial letter P in Plea Rolls (Auerbach 1954, 23). Illuminated portraits on Plea Rolls are still found for the reign of Elizabeth (1558 ff.), and at this point, one description is particularly worth quoting as it gives us a sense of these remarkable works of art:

The Renaissance initial, beautifully executed, is decorated with silver grey arabesques shaded in white and pink against a sky-blue ground. Two roundels in scarlet with a roman E and R in gold intersect the architectural construction. The youthful figure of the Queen, in a raspberry-coloured, ermine-trimmed robe, is seated on an ochre throne which ends in claw-feet and stands on a brick red platform.[…]The distribution of gold over the design produces a jewel-like effect; this delicate miniature might almost be the work of a goldsmith (Auerbach 1954, 119).

  • 14 A similar study has been conducted on initials of French charters (Lecoy de la Marche 186-95).

35Here, one finds the didactic function of the royal portrait with the initials and their reference to the written text. One can also detect the cultic function of the effigy claiming to be a true portrait of the sitter, inviting both to the fiction of making present the absent monarch and, by its beauty – shining colours enhanced with shining true gold – signifying that the honour to the image is an honour by proxy to the actual queen. The chromatic composition is predominantly a declension of the colour red, i.e. a synonym for bright light, arousing cathartic emotion.14

4. Enunciative strategies to capture the beholder’s eye: drawing us nearer the sitter

4.1. The close-up and private devotion

36The analogy between the secular use of the close-up portraits in miniature and their religious models is also documented by the practice of the close-up in portraits of the Virgin at a window. As Sixten Ringbom explains, “during the later Middle Ages the window formula occurs in connection with western adaptations of Byzantine half-length icons” (Ringbom 42), and its symbolical significance was textualised by “the favourite epithet of the Virgin as a fenestra coeli through which God shed the true light on the world” (Ringbom 43). The window aspect was “recognized almost universally in European painting of the fifteenth century” (Ringbom 44). Interestingly enough, the author illustrates his statement with a reference to a page from a Book of Hours, a Ghent-Bruges work from about 1500, and a parallel with another miniature from the same Flemish school showing St Luke painting the Virgin, in which we see him copying his model who is standing in an aperture in the wall” (Ringbom 44).

37That Horenbout was familiar with the window motif is documented by a miniature of a Queen worshipping a vision of Virgo Maria in Sole as she is kneeling at her prie-dieu (Ringbom 21). The Virgin appears with an aureole of light signifying a mental image in the mind of a lay person (Ringbom 22). This illumination, possibly by Gerard Horenbout, testifies to the private use of independent religious images for the pleasure of one’s eye by the colours, the satisfaction of one’s imagination making the absent present, and the joy of one’s contemplation of a virtue, or even of God. The microcosm of man is thus brought nearer the divine macrocosm by divine light reflected on a solid body, here the Virgin’s head, which stands for light as splendor or fulgor. Within this context, Oliver’s Head of Christ no longer looks unexpected, but rather prolongs a search for a use of light with a mystical value.

4.2. The border: from an ornamental to a naturalist function on the page

38In his discussion of book miniatures in Flemish Art, Otto Pächt has shown the new interest in naturalism in panel painting (Pächt 19) brought about by Jan van Eyck (Panofsky, I, 178-204, II, pl. 117) and, in France, by Jean Fouquet (Lecoy de la Marche 165). Pächt’s thesis that “the new artistic creed demanded that pictorial conception should be based exclusively on the subjective experience of the human eye and the picture plane be treated as imaginary space” leads him to observe how light in ornamental borders changed from the radius of gold to lumen, i.e. light making bodies visible, by flowers and insects which now appeared to have been dropped on the page where they cast a shadow (Pächt 19).

39While natural light replaced the ornamental light of borders, book illumination gave way to another mode of non-differentiation between the historia and the border space called the grisaille. This is relevant to the discussion of Isaac Oliver’s evolution towards some sort of hegemony of white and pure light which his Entombment shows (Costa de Beauregard 1993, passim). Isaac Oliver is credited with three grisaille female heads in 1597-1600. Contrary to his practise of linear elements in his Hilliard-like manner, in these grisaille miniatures, Oliver creates portraits which look like sculpture (Finsten 113). Colding speaks of a “cameo effect” and refers to Holbein’s own grisaille full length portrait of Henry VIII (Colding, 90-91, 104-106).

  • 15 See for example the Master of Mary of Burgundy, St. Anthony in the Desert, Oxford, Bodleian Library (...)

40The grisaille technique by the Master of Mary of Burgundy who, let it be briefly recalled, taught the above-quoted Simon Benninck and Gerard Horenbout (Finsten 2), introduces a new conception of the fiction of the scene as the artist “mostly uses not a simple grey, but a grey shaded with coloured (violet or salmon-pink) tints; the highlights are often picked out in gold” (Pächt 21). That the treatment of the contour of figures was a major issue in this atmospheric conception of space is also apparent in his work. As Pächt puts it, “[t]he master of Mary of Burgundy’s greatest single contribution […] was the infinitely subtle atmospheric treatment of scenes by which he succeeded in mellowing the hard linearism of the compositional structure” (Pächt 23).15

4.3. The parallel between Hilliard’s and Oliver’s drawings: their treatment of contour

41The parallel between Hilliard and Oliver takes a new dimension when one examines their understanding of the contour of volumes, and of the face in ¾ angle, a problem which led Leonardo to develop his technique known as sfumato (Arasse 291-308).

42As far as light can be analysed by the perspective of shadows, Pecham’s rules are very similar to Leonardo’s and Alberti’s. As to the contour, Alberti makes it clear that the lines of the contour should not be too visible: “[…] one ought to take great pains to make these lines so fine that they can scarcely be seen” (Alberti 68). He also insists on the fact that the outline “when done with too apparent a line does not indicate a margin of the plane but a neat cleavage” (ibid.). As to Hilliard, he opposes the presence of shadows in his miniature portraits and argues that “the principal part of painting or drawing after the life consisteth in the truth of the line […] but best in plain lines without shadowing” (Hilliard 65).

43On this point, the use of colours to entrap light is given two different interpretations. For Hilliard, “the line without shadow showeth all to a good judgment; but the shadow without line showeth nothing” (Hilliard 65), while for the Italians, colours can capture light by being modulated.

44Rather than any Italian or French influence (Pope-Hennessy 99) in this respect, one is tempted to bear in mind the Horenbout ‘touch’ in sentences like “so to shadow as if it were not at all shadowed is best shadowed” (Hilliard 67). So instead of considering Hilliard’s lines on complexion as of “little importance” (Pope Hennessy 95), I would like to suggest here that they emphasize the necessary steadiness of colour by the very use of prepared grounds of flesh colour slightly shadowed with transparent colours, as Horenbout taught him.

45Hilliard indeed refrains from giving out this secret method which was only described years later by Norgate: “[…] tempered according to the complexion of the Party whose picture you are to make” (Norgate 62). The Elizabethan miniaturist also argues that light is captured by a particular contour, i.e. the reflection within gems or pearls, the diamond in particular being the privileged apparatus by which he claims to capture light, thus making the invisible visible by the diffraction of sunbeams within the translucent stone (Hilliard 93). For pearls, he captures light by using a ground of polished silver which captures light, and for rubies using gum. Here again, Norgate reveals a secret technique thought to have been invented by Hilliard:

On a ground of burnished silver, of the fashion and size of your ruby, you take turpentine of the best and the purest, temper it with Indian of Florence lake then take a needle […] heated in a candle, and laid upon the ground of silver, fashioning the stone round […] with the point of your instrument (Norgate 81).

  • 16 See Nicholas Hilliard’s sketch of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1585 (Murrell 1983, pl. 62). Website: http: (...)

46The dramaturgy of the capture of light is here miniaturised in the extreme, within a small ruby on a portrait miniature of a lady. Hilliard even once inserts an actual diamond within the miniature (Murdoch et al. 7).16

  • 17 See for instance Isaac Oliver, Unknown Woman, Chalk drawing (c. 1610).

47Contrariwise, by using the continental chiaroscuro apparatus of a directional light, Oliver expands the dramaturgy of the capture of light through colours to the whole miniature,17 a conception which his Entombment in Angers amply documents (Costa de Beauregard 1993, passim). One sees that the sfumato technique has made the initial line of the contour quite invisible, in keeping with Alberti’s advice (Alberti 68).

4.4. The broadening of the contour: the trope of the “billowing veil”

  • 18 Isaac Oliver, called Frances Howard, Countess of Essex and Somerset, c. 1596-1600. Circular: 130 mm (...)

48In his portrait miniature of the so-called Frances Howard, Countess of Essex and Somerset (c. 1606),18 Oliver is, in his own way, echoing Alberti’s suggestion for a successful contour of the figure:

Nothing can be found, so I think, which is more useful than that veil, finely woven, dyed whatever colour pleases you and with larger threads [marking out] as many parallels as you prefer. This veil I place between the eye and the thing seen, so the visual pyramid penetrates through the thinness of the veil (Alberti 68-69).

49While the device is among those which eventually lead Alberti to his theory of perspective, it is nevertheless curiously similar to Leonardo’s later sfumato, and Oliver transposes the technique quite literally with the subtle effect of contour he achieves in the veiled lady’s portrait. Finsten describes the “billowing veil” motif as follows:

The gauzy, semi-transparent veil encircles her body in an elaborate figure-eight design, setting up a contrapuntal relation not only to the other curvilinear shapes, but also with the different techniques used: smoothly sculptural face, impasto jewels, sharp details of hair and lace, delicate painterliness of the flowered border of her cape (Finsten 123-24).

50Upon closer scrutiny, Jim Murrell observes that

[…] the flesh-tones have faded, leaving only the sift modelling of the shadows in a grey-brown colour. The gently modelled pink features of this portrait would originally have acted as a subtle foil to the rhythmic composition of silver, grey and black (Murrell 44).

  • 19 Isaac Oliver, The Three Brothers Browne, 1598 (Burghley Collection). The miniature represents Antho (...)

51The palette is clearly that of chiaroscuro, and Murrell draws a parallel with Oliver’s cabinet miniature The Three Brothers Browne.19 In this cabinet miniature (Costa de Beauregard 2000, 333 and plate V), the hatching of the features is barely visible, while the pun on the name refers to the conception of colour as the site of conflict between light and darkness.

4.5. The S line and our gazing at the inner life of the sitter

52Close-ups and the crossing of the ornamental border noted above are not essentially different from such visual motifs as the veil among the dialectics of colours and light. These strategies culminate with the S line composition so characteristic of Mannerist art. The portrait miniatures by Hilliard introduce the oval frame (Costa de Beauregard 1991, 163) to represent movement by the contrapposto: the axis of the sitter’s shoulder sits in one direction, the axis of the sitter’s face in the other, as if he/she were turning round to look at us. This is indeed what Hilliard means by “countenance” (Hilliard 57), but he only sparingly speaks of the volume created by this S form. Instead, he describes his fascination for the human face in terms conveying a sense of the soul or anima as movement: “[…] how in smiling how the eye changeth and narroweth, holding the sight just between the lids as a centre” (Hilliard 57). This passage clearly calls to mind the description of Hermione’s return to life in The Winter’s Tale: “The very life seems warm upon her lips / The fixture of her eye has motion in’t” (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.66-67).

53Colour in both texts signifies life, and its change from paleness to a greater chromatic intensity accompanies the motionless eye which is now the site of movement. In Hilliard’s observation of countenance, the illusion of movement is clearly a fantasy since his picture is as motionless as Hermione’s statue. However, the opposition between the axis of the shoulders and the axis of the ¾ face of the sitter is a far more explicit change in appearances, and it clearly indicates the sense of fiction which Pächt noted in his analysis of the naturalist Flemish miniatures (Pächt 1986).

54Moreover, the eye is the centre of the apparition of life, and so it is in the animation of the statue. In a later paragraph, Hilliard develops the topic of the sitter’s eyes: “chiefly the drawer should observe the eyes in his pictures […] for the eye is the life of the picture; and be sure likewise that the circle of the sight be perfect round […] the centre truly placed in the midst thereof” (Hilliard 59). John Pecham’s discussion of the eye is closely related to his analysis of light, and Hilliard’s allusion to “a round ball” being “a round ball in the open light” is better understood when we read Pecham’s statement that “any point of a luminous or illuminated object simultaneously illuminates the whole medium adjacent to it”, i.e. Hilliard’s “open light” (Hilliard 67-8). When Pecham describes our eyesight, stating that “rays of light and colour, after reaching the glacial humor at the centre of the eye, proceed [to] the optic nerve” (Pecham 79), he does so after insisting that the perpendicular ray is the one we perceive: “[…] only that perpendicular called the axis, which is not refracted, manifests the object efficaciously” (Pecham 121). He also explains that the eye is “round” and is a “shining body” which accounts for the reflection of light on its surface, insisting once again that no rays issue from the eye itself (Pecham 111).

  • 20 See for instance Nicholas Hilliard, A Lady, unfinished, c. 1575-80, Victoria and Albert Museum.Webs (...)

55Thus, it is the capture of life thanks to the ray of light at a straight angle penetrating the sitter’s iris and our own, via the painter’s hand and gaze, which Hilliard dramatizes in his description of the sitter’s face coming to life with a smile.20 The eye is essential not only in the capturing of colours and light, but in the expression of life by the reflection of light on its shining globe: “[…] the reflection of the light, which appeareth like a white speck, must be placed according to the light” (Hilliard 59). The white speck he is referring to is always next to the black “circle of sight” (Murrell 1983, col. Pl. A Photomicrograph of the eye in Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1597), a familiar device thanks to which the beholder of the picture has the uncanny feeling that the sitter’s eyes are following him/her around. The sitter’s gaze becomes even more the focus of our attention owing to the use of the S line which expresses dynamism and rhythm (Costa de Beauregard 1991, 215). The S line originating in the theory that the flame cannot but rise towards the sky (Pecham 157), and whose invention as a visual trope is attributed by Lomazzo to Michelangelo (Haydocke 17), is a device to capture the je ne sais quoi or grace of the sitter, a central concept of Mannerist aesthetics and ethics (Costa de Beauregard 1991, 273). This conception of beauty as elusive and ungraspable is a trope to signify the nature of light. But by limiting the sitter’s figure to the face and shoulders (i.e. the close-up), the ¾ angle suggesting depth and the symbiosis of the living face and the equally living world, the focus on the sitter’s gaze dramatizes our perception itself, to which both light and colours contribute in one single experience.

56The contrapposto and its dramaturgy of the gaze finds a startling echo with the use of the veil and a double contrapposto of two S lines in Oliver’s Frances Howard portrait miniature which has been discussed above (Finsten 123). With the interplay of the translucent veil upon a dark background, one might even say that Hilliard’s eulogy of the translucent diamond as an apparatus to capture light as well as the two fundamental colours black and white is here transposed in a gauze with a delicate network, which captures the directional light off-frame and redirects it upon its wearer.

Conclusion: evolution and transition

  • 21 See John Donne’s opening verses to The Storme, to Mr Christopher Brooke, dated 1597 (Auerbach 1961, (...)

57In the miniature of John Donne, which is a straightforward miniature in Hilliard’s manner, the poet’s gaze is looking straight at us. In an altogether different manner, in Oliver’s Head of Christ, due to the high angle on the model’s head, it is the aureole, i.e. pure white light, which illuminates the likeness of the sitter and arrests our gaze. It is slightly ironical that Donne’s own eulogy of an Elizabethan miniaturist should be devoted to Nicholas Hilliard,21 while it might be one of the reasons for Oliver’s aesthetic choice in this case and an homage to his master and by-then rival, the same Hilliard. Thus, paradoxically, eye-contact is essential to the metaphysical poet’s gaze at the painter and, therefore, at us, while the more realistic rendering of light from a technical viewpoint is applied to the image of a divine ‘invisible’ presence.

58More generally, the use of the blue ultramarine background is an ornamental transposition of the theory of light by optics and geometry, both a border — or frame-within-the frame — and a smooth rendering of the surrounding medium. And at the same period, the painting of light as an aureole also derives from such theories but in their aesthetic developments known as chiaroscuro and sfumato. Owing to Isaac Oliver’s intimacy with Inigo Jones and Jonson’s Masques in which air, water, or fire are illustrated with transparent water-colours, the aureole expresses the ideal harmony between elements by the disappearance of colours into the Sun as the source of light. Slightly ironically, however, due to the high angle on the sitter’s head, our gaze is not directed upwards in an attitude of contemplation, but rather downwards in an attitude of meditation upon the human microcosm. As for the evolution of figurative art in portraits, which was to find a new means of translating such theories about light in the symbolism of colours of baroque art, such a translation is already announced by Oliver’s two passionate young men in an atmosphere of flames.22

59It seems, therefore, that Isaac Oliver’s work embodies the transition from early modern England into modern England, but this was made possible only thanks to Nicholas Hilliard who had made an earlier transition possible by a re-assessment of medieval aesthetics and their roots in a detailed knowledge of optics.

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1 Isaac Oliver, John Donne, 1616 (Strong 1983, cat. n°178). Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

2 Isaac Oliver, Head of Christ, c. 1610 (Strong 1983, cat. n°175). Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

3 The same motif also attributed to the Horenbout studio is illustrated in black and white in Murdoch et al, ill. 1, p. 3; this time it is an illuminated border from a Book of Hours, c. 1525-30.

4 Lucas Horenbout, Henry VIII, 1525-1526, from a charter in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Website: (Date accessed: 14 February 2015).

5 Lucas Horenbout, Hans Holbein the Younger, after a self-portrait (circular, 42 mm diameter), The Wallace Collection. Website: (Date accessed: 14 February 2015).

6 Blue is also the colour for air in Alberti’s Della Pittura. Alberti, relying perhaps on Pliny, assumes the existence of only four colours by analogy with the four elements: the colour of fire is red, of air, blue, of water, green, of earth grey or brown (Barasch 78).

7 Nicholas Hilliard, Self-Portrait (aged 30), 1577, Watercolour on vellum, Victoria and Albert Museum. Website: (Date accessed: 14 February 2015).

8 See for instance Hilliard’s Heneage Jewel (c. 1595): enameled gold, table-cut diamonds, Burmese rubies, rock crystal and a miniature (Victoria and Albert Museum). Website: (Date accessed: 14 February 2015).

9 Isaac Oliver, Self-Portrait, c. 1590, watercolour on vellum, 2 1/2 in. x 2 in. (64 mm x 51 mm) oval, National Gallery. Website: (Date accessed: 14 February 2015).

10 See for instance one of them, Anne of Cleves (1539), now at the Louvre Museum. Website:,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg (Date accessed: 22 February 2015).

11 The Tudor and Jacobean miniature portrait therefore relies on the beholder’s competence to decipher its vertical and horizontal semiotic values in a manner echoing similar rhetorical conventions in contemporary and earlier medieval images (Costa de Beauregard 1991, passim).

12 For the early history of the apologies along didactic lines, see Kitzinger 83-150 and Ringbom 11.

13 See for instance Hilliard’s miniature portrait of Alice (Alice Brandon, Mrs Hilliard, 1578), his first wife, exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

14 A similar study has been conducted on initials of French charters (Lecoy de la Marche 186-95).

15 See for example the Master of Mary of Burgundy, St. Anthony in the Desert, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 219 (Pächt 1948, col. pl. D).

16 See Nicholas Hilliard’s sketch of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1585 (Murrell 1983, pl. 62). Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

17 See for instance Isaac Oliver, Unknown Woman, Chalk drawing (c. 1610).

18 Isaac Oliver, called Frances Howard, Countess of Essex and Somerset, c. 1596-1600. Circular: 130 mm diameter. London, The Victoria and Albert Museum (for a detail, see Murrell 1983, ill. 91). Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

19 Isaac Oliver, The Three Brothers Browne, 1598 (Burghley Collection). The miniature represents Anthony Maria and his younger brothers, namely John and William. Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

20 See for instance Nicholas Hilliard, A Lady, unfinished, c. 1575-80, Victoria and Albert Museum.Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

21 See John Donne’s opening verses to The Storme, to Mr Christopher Brooke, dated 1597 (Auerbach 1961, 45): “a hand, or eye / By Hilliard drawne, is worth an history”, by which he means a detail versus a scene.

22 Isaac Oliver, Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames, c. 1600. Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015); Isaac Oliver, Unknown Young Man in Flames, c. 1610. Website: (Date accessed: 15 February 2015).

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Raphaëlle COSTA DE BEAUREGARD, « “Medieval” and “Modern” Conceptions of the Colours of Light in Early Modern England and Isaac Oliver’s Portrait Miniatures », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4348

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Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès
Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard is Emeritus Professor of English studies at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. A specialist of verbal and non-verbal semiotics, she has written extensively on Shakespeare, film studies and visual culture, and colour remains one of her main fields of interest. Her books notably include Nicholas Hilliard et l’imaginaire élisabéthain: 1547-1610 (Editions du CNRS, 1991), Silent Elizabethans: the Language of Colour in the Miniatures of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver (Collection Astrea, Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3, 2000) and Cinéma et couleur: Film and Colour (Michel Houdiard Editeur, 2009).

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