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Why the British monarch’s court artist painted only by candlelight: Samuel Cooper

Samuel Cooper is an English artist and the best miniature master of his time, who became famous not only for his worthy court service to king Charles II, but also for his unusual technique. Samuel Cooper used it… a candle for writing your paintings.
About the artist
There is not much biographical information about the artist, but it is known that Samuel Cooper (1609 -1672) was trained by his uncle, the miniaturist John Hoskins the Elder.He was a talented man: in addition to his artistic skills, Cooper was an excellent musician, played the lute well, and was also reputed to be a good linguist, speaking fluent French. Initially, he built his artistic career in Paris and Holland, and then settled in London. Here he was surrounded by poets, philosophers, and fine art experts from the Royal society. According to a number of contemporary authors, Cooper was a short, strong man with a round face and ruddy cheeks.

After several years of working in the same Studio with his uncle, Cooper opened his own Studio, later becoming the most sought-after miniature artist of his generation, able to charge 20 pounds for a portrait of a head and 30 pounds for a portrait of half a man’s height by the end of his long and successful career.

During the English civil war, Cooper established himself as a portrait painter who worked only in miniatures (5×7.5 cm). He painted several portraits of men in armor on a dark background (portraits of John Milton, George monk, John Pym, Henry Ireton, Robert Lilburne, and John Carew).
This fascinating self-portrait stands out for the power and conviction with which the artist recreates his physical presence. The parted lips tell the audience that he wants to say something. A direct and persistent gaze is directed at the mirror, not at the viewer (the artist painted himself from the reflection). The subtle use of the palette is one of Cooper’s greatest strengths, and here it shows an exceptional advantage combined with various shades of brown and gray. There is a version that this portrait was painted for Cooper’s wife, whom he married in 1664 (this was a kind of confession of his feelings in the fashion of the time). His age in the portrait is 35 years old and he certainly looks younger than his years, which is proved by documentary sources.
Portrait Of Oliver Cromwell
The first portrait of Cooper for Oliver Cromwell was painted in 1649. Cromwell chose Cooper because he represented him as “simple in character as well as in dress.” Cooper portrayed his client as a person and “a sober, honest alternative to Royal vanity, excess, and arrogance.” Cromwell insisted that the artist display it as truthfully as possible, without even forgetting about the warts. Cooper responded to this demand with dignity. He pointed to a wrinkled forehead, thinning hair, and a thick nose… a very commanding look. Alfred L. Rouse claimed that ” Cooper presented the best portrait of a great man, written with a shrewd sense of character.” Today, Cooper is considered the first British artist to receive international recognition.

Cooper was also commissioned to paint portraits of members of the Cromwell family, including his son Richard Cromwell. Working with Cromwell did not prevent him from becoming a court painter to king Charles II after his accession to the throne in 1660. Charles II was widely patronized by Cooper, and he was also called upon to paint miniature portraits of the king’s favorites and children. His reputation as the most talented miniaturist of his generation was recognized throughout Europe. Rumor reached the influential Cosimo III de ‘ Medici, who sought out the artist to paint his portrait.
Cooper’s miniature portraits are distinguished both by their expressive use of Baroque colors and subtle brushstrokes, and by their striking representation of the individual character of their characters. Cooper’s miniature portraits are influenced by the painting of Antonis van Dyck, so he is often referred to as”van Dyck in miniature”.

Contemporaries attest that he liked to draw from nature by candlelight, when the shadows more sharply modeled the form, and that portrait medals were minted from his portraits. In his portraits, especially those that the artist kept for work on repeated images of the same model, the faces are rendered with amazing vitality, while the accessories and background are only suggested by expressive free strokes of the brush. Cooper worked on cardboard or thick paper, wrote, like many other miniaturists, gouache, but, unlike them, used transparent colors.

The most famous case when Cooper used a candle in the process of work occurred in January 1662. Cooper was called to the king to prepare his portrait for the minting of new coins. English writer John Evelyn was present at the time and recalled the situation: “I had the honor of holding a candle while Cooper worked, carefully choosing the shadow and light of the candle for the best image of lighting equipment. During this process, his Majesty spoke to me about several things concerning paintings and graves.”
Samuel Cooper is called “the first who gave the art of miniature portraits the power and freedom of oil painting”. Today, Cooper’s reputation is as high as it was during his lifetime. Unlike many artists, he didn’t have to wait years for recognition. At the age of 30, he was already considered one of the best miniaturists in Europe.

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