Isaac Oliver’s Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (c.1600)

This portrait of Elizabeth I painted in the last year of her long reign portrays her in the prime of life as the immortal Queen and Virgin Mother of her people. With the abolition of Catholicism under Henry VIII, images of the other Virgin had disappeared to be displaced, to some extent, in the national consciousness by Elizabeth's. Although by 1600 an accurate likeness was expected in portraits on the continent, England had been slow to adopt Renaissance innovations in the visual arts.  Besides, few could probably remember what the seventy-year old queen once looked like. As long as she had a regal costume, red hair and was beautiful, Oliver could probably imagine her as he liked. 

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Oliver, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, known as The Rainbow Portrait (c.1600)

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Even the dress covered allover with unattatched eyes and ears might be imaginary. Some maintain that they are a national security device implying that the Queen can see and hear all. That may have been Oliver's explanation for the courtiers but it sounds doubtful as an element of art. I find it difficult to believe that anybody but the artist could have dreamed up this most unusual costume. The dragon on her sleeve, though, has been more properly identified as a sign of Wisdom which thus suggests the eyes and ears are not warning signs but representations of the inner senses that lead her (as the Virgin Mother inside the artist's head) to Wisdom and Absolute Truth.  

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Detail of Oliver's Rainbow Portrait

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That in part explains why the actual features Oliver chose for the Queen's face are his own. He would have been well aware that artists elsewhere painted sitters as representations of the artist's mind especially people in high places. Here, as in other royal portraits, Elizabeth represents the regal power of the artist's creative and androgynous mind and of its inner path to Wisdom. Elizabeth and Oliver share an identical line to the eyebrows, a prominent "knuckle" near the root of the nose, identically shaped eye-openings, a similar contour to the far cheek and a slight smile. Although the attribution to Oliver has sometimes be questioned, now there can be no doubt. Oliver composed it.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: detail of Oliver's Rainbow Portrait
Bottom: Detail of Oliver's Self-portrait, inverted

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Oliver was in little danger, this late in the Queen's life, of upsetting his patron as long as she was portrayed with elegant features and unblemished skin. What is surprising is not that Oliver painted in his own features. Van Eyck, Memling, Titian, Raphael, Perugino and many others had already done likewise as I have shown. What surprises is that to this day historians, journalists and the general public still do not know that the men and women who have become the well-known icons of each nation's history are artists.

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Original Publication Date: 14 Dec 2011
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