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Where Art Meets Jewels: The Jewelry of Portraiture

It goes without saying that jewelry can be, and often has been a powerful status symbol throughout history. Indeed, so have portraits. Oil paint has been expensive for a long time, particularly back when blue pigment had to be made of lapis lazuli, a material that was once as expensive as gold. Only in the 1820s did the French Societé d’Encouragement offer a cash reward for anyone who could invent a cheaper synthetic version of the pigment. Until then, blue was a costly color to paint.


Sitting for a portrait was something only wealthy and high-status figures could afford to do. So it was natural that the sitters would want to get as dressed up as possible to look lavish and powerful in their portraits. Not much has changed - people still get dressed up in their fineries to pose for Instagram pictures. The only difference is that paintings would take much, much longer to complete than a selfie.


Antique Animal Jewelry has compiled a list of beautiful historical paintings to guide you through the history of jewelry within portraiture art, starting from the 16th century.

Queen Elizabeth I, portrait associated with Nicholas Hilliard. Oil on panel, circa 1575.

Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London.


This portrait is known as the 'Phoenix' portrait because of the prominent jewel that Queen Elizabeth I wears on her chest. The phoenix is a symbol for chastity and rebirth, which fits well with Elizabeth's moniker of the 'Virgin Queen.' Above the phoenix is a jeweled collar featuring a Tudor rose at its center, whilst the rest of her dress is adorned with pearls, which symbolize wisdom and purity.


The Phoenix Jewel. Gold and enamel, c. 1570. Photo via The British Museum.


On one side of the jewel is a miniature portrait of Elizabeth I, and on the other is the figure of the phoenix in flames, underneath Elizabeth's royal monogram. The outer enameled wreath is woven with red and white Tudor roses. The jewel looks different here than in the painting, but it is thought to be the same item.


Princess Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia and Electress Palatine, Unknown artist, oil on panel, 1613. Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London.


This portrait probably depicts Princess Elizabeth in her wedding dress, around the time she married Frederick, Elector Palatine. On her lace collar, you can see the royal coat of arms and the heraldic lion and unicorn. She also wears a black armband in memory of her brother, Henry Prince of Wales, who died the previous year. She wears pearls in her hair and around her neck, most likely symbolizing the purity of the bride.


Anne, Lady Carleton, studio of Michiel Jansz. van Miereveldt, oil on panel, circa 1625.

Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London.


Lady Carleton, an art connoisseur herself, is adorned to the hilt in this portrait. With a pearl and feather headpiece, a rosette containing a heart-shaped gemstone and coronet, and an oval locket on her dress that likely contained a portrait, the Lady is doing an excellent job of showing off her riches. Her necklace is likely made of onyx.


Portrait of Queen Charlotte by Thomas Frye, mezzotint, 1762.

Photo © National Portrait Gallery.


The eagle-eyed among you may recognize this portrait from AAJ's previous blog about Queen Charlotte. As the consort of George III, she received a number of jewelry gifts from her husband. Shah Alam, the Mogul Emperor, also gave George III a selection of jewelry including "an exceedingly fine string of pearls, with an awbray (a breast ornament in the form of a cluster of jewels) studded with diamonds" as well as a number of other diamond and gold articles (Michael L. Nash in Royal Wills).


Luisa Maria Amelia Teresa of Naples and Sicily, Grand Duchess Consort of Tuscany, wife of Archduke Ferdinand III of Tuscany. Painted by Joseph Dorffmeister, 1797, oil on canvas.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons.


Luisa was a Neapolitan and Sicilian princess whose mother was one of Marie Antoinette's sisters. She wears a number of pearls in this painting, in her hair, in her earrings, and on her bracelets. Most interesting, however, is the brooch on her breast containing a miniature portrait. It is unclear who is depicted, but the portrait bears resemblance to other portraits of her husband, Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany of the time. Lastly and most importantly, AAJ firmly approves of the combination of dogs and jewelry found in this portrait. Luisa's dog is pawing her pearl bracelet... clearly a pup with good taste.


María Cristina de Borbón, Queen of Spain, 1830. Oil on canvas by Vicente López Portaña. Photo via Museo del Prado.


This is the wedding portrait of the young Queen María to her husband Fernando VII. She was his fourth wife after he became widowed from his first three marriages. Here, she wears a headdress of diamonds with bird of paradise feathers and a white veil. She holds a fan that is also set in precious stones. The spectacular necklace sprawling over her chest is actually a brooch that has been attached to the necklace, which is made of diamonds forms the shape of a floral basket. María's earrings and belt are also adorned with diamonds. This is a truly lavish painting, showing off a sumptuous amount of gemstones.


The Lady of Delicado de Imaz by Vicente López Portaña. Oil on canvas, c. 1836.

Photo via Museo del Prado.


The lady, in her fifties here, is richly decorated with jewels including a diamond-studded hairpin in the shape of a moon and star. With a lavish gold bracelet and gold chatelaine watch attached to her belt, the dark velvet of her dress emphasizes the brightness of the jewels. From the Prado's description of the painting, 'in an attempt to replace the beauty that the model does not offer, she wanted to immortalize herself with ostentation - wearing her best clothes, being able to date the portrait with all precision by the fashion of her attire, jewelry, and hairstyle, to the years of the reign of Fernando VII.'


Portrait of Madame Ingres, 1859, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.


This portrait was the last one that Ingres ever painted of another person; two self-portraits later, he passed away. The painting depicts his second wife, Delphine Ramel. The Madame was said to have been warm and kind, and not too concerned with upper-class pretentiousness. However, here, she is adorned with a number of jewels and wears a sumptuously colored gown. Of particular interest in this piece are her rings - the painting offers a rare, detailed depiction of finger rings that allow for close inspection.


Mrs. Charles Kettlewell by Frederick Goodall, oil on canvas, 1890. Photo via Sotheby's.


This portrait marks a turning point in these women's portraits. Mrs. Charles Kettlewell, though married to a wealthy husband, was also well-known in her own right as an actress, not just a wife. In the late 1800s, she went by her maiden name, Edith Woodworth, which she used as a stage name. She was a popular actress in theatres throughout London, including the Globe, and she also managed and produced theatres and productions. The painter, Goodall, met Mrs. Kettlewell at a fancy-dress ball where he was captivated by her looks. He describes her posing for the painting as "her face, arms and hands would bear comparison with those of the finest Greek sculptuary — she was really beautiful. Her feet were sandaled, and on her arms, she had sapphire and diamond snake-armlets high up between the elbow and the shoulder.'


According to Sotheby's, 'Mrs. Kettlewell seemed equally fascinated by her portrait. As Goodall wrote, "from the very commencement of charcoaling it on the canvas" and "while the picture was in progress and she was resting, she used to sit in front of the portrait and study it curiously," asking, "'Am I as beautiful as that?'" to which he replied "'No painter can do you justice."' (Info via Sotheby's).


Queen Victoria by Bertha Müller, after Heinrich von Angeli, oil on canvas, 1900.

Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London.


Queen Victoria was eighty years old at the time of this sitting. She wears her white widow's cap to signify mourning for her husband Albert. She also wears a number of pearls, on her necklace, bracelets, and earrings. Hanging from her side appears to be a jeweled chatelaine with a painted image. To find out more about Queen Victoria's story as told through her jewelry, visit AAJ's recent blog on the topic!


Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons.


It may seem jarring that this iconic Klimt painting came only seven years after the previous image of Queen Victoria. The 20th century was a time of enormous change within art and portraiture. Whilst traditional portraits were still commissioned, the art world was changing; there were multiple styles at play during the turn of the century. It's worth remembering that Picasso was born in 1881, though few would imagine him to have shared over twenty years of existence with Queen Victoria!


The jewelry in paintings becomes harder to track as abstractions and the various avant-garde movements of the 20th-century art world take hold. However, this piece by Klimt boasts some lavish bracelets as well as a jeweled choker that went on to have an interesting story. The choker was initially given to the sitter of this portrait, Adele of Bloch-Bauer, by her husband, Ferdinand, a Jewish banker and sugar producer. It was a wedding present. Adele died in 1925, and soon after, Ferdinand fled Austria to escape the Nazis. He moved to Switzerland and left behind much of his wealth and art.


This painting, and the necklace in question, were stolen by the Nazis in 1941. Hermann Göring, the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, ended up acquiring the necklace and giving it to his wife, Emmy. The portrait was also renamed as The Lady in Gold to remove all Jewish connotations from it.


One of Adele and Ferdinand's nieces, Maria Altmann, eventually filed a civil claim against the Austrian government in 2000 to reclaim the painting. After a long arbitration process, Altmann reclaimed and sold the painting for $135 million. It now resides in the Neue Galerie in New York. The whereabouts of the necklace are unknown.


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