Mary of Modena
- Extended Catalogue Entry
Mary of Modena
by Willem Wissing
oil on canvas, circa 1685
48 in. x 38 1/2 in. (1220 mm x 978 mm)
Sitterback to top
- Mary of Modena (1658-1718), Queen of James II. Sitter associated with 56 portraits.
Artistback to top
- Willem Wissing (1656-1687), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 146 portraits, Sitter in 3 portraits.
This portraitback to top
The only daughter of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena, and a devout Roman Catholic, Mary intended to enter a convent until her marriage with James, Duke of York, (later James II), in 1673. This is one of a series of informal paintings that were based on the sittings by the royal couple for their coronation portraits. In the portrait Mary's left hand rests on a small dog which looks like an Italian greyhound, a reference to her homeland. The turn of the dog's head away from his mistress may be a device to suggest that his master is nearby.
Linked publicationsback to top
- Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 33
- Ingamells, John, Later Stuart Portraits 1685-1714, 2009, p. 177
- Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 57 Read entry
Daughter of the Duke of Modena, the 14-year-old Italian princess had already been married to James, Duke of York, by proxy before she came to England in 1673. Earlier and less formal portraits of her by Sir Peter Lely, her brother-in-law Charles II’s court painter, significantly often show her with the House of Stuart’s favourite dog, a toy spaniel. In 1685, on the accession of James II, she became Queen, and William Wissing, a Dutchman and former pupil of the now deceased Lely, undertook the Coronation portraits. This is one of a small series of more intimate and informal paintings that were based on the sittings for the Coronation portrait and were probably intended as gifts for friends.
The painting positively bristles with conventional symbolism: the rose for the Queen’s beauty and virtue, the twining honeysuckle for her constancy and the dog for fidelity. Despite her husband James II’s well-documented love of hunting and dogs (he is said to have given the order ‘Save the dogs and Colonel Churchill’ when the Gloucester with Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, on board went down off the coast of Norfolk in 1682), there is no similar evidence for Mary. The little dog seen here, however, seems very identifiable; indeed it is a bitch and looks like an Italian greyhound, perhaps crossed with another breed. Apart from providing an oblique reference to her homeland, it does seem possible that it may have been her own dog, possibly a present from a relative. That it is, nevertheless, also a symbol is made clear in another version of this painting, where its place is taken by a cockatoo, to which similar attributes of devotion were ascribed.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 417
- Williamson, David, Kings and Queens, 2010, p. 121
- Williamson, David, The National Portrait Gallery: History of the Kings and Queens of England, 1998, p. 123
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1685back to top
Current affairsCharles II dies, his heir, Catholic brother, James II, succeeds to the throne. Despite deep distrust by many Protestants, he initially experiences unexpected popularity.
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, leads the Monmouth Rebellion ambitious to seize the throne. Following his defeat at Sedgemoor, Monmouth is executed at Tower Hill.
Art and scienceOpera Universa, by physician Thomas Sydenham, considered the father of English medicine, is published in London.
Organist, Henry Purcell composes, My heart is inditing, for the coronation of James II and his queen, Mary of Modena.
Writer on dentistry, Charles Allen publishes the earliest known English book on dentistry.
InternationalThe Edict of Fontainebleau is issued by Louis XIV revoking the Edict of Nantes which gave Huguenots a right to practice their religion, free from persecution. Although Huguenots had steadily left France since the Dragonnades in 1681, this edict essentially ended official religious toleration in France.
Become a Member
Enjoy access to special events, discounts on the Gallery online shop, supporters’ updates and much more
Bringing people together by sharing the portraits and stories of the men and women who have shaped our nation.
Sign up to receive information on exhibitions, collections and activities of the National Portrait Gallery, including special offers, shop products, and exclusive competitions.
Tell us more
Framed & unframed prints