Bad mouthing Lely's hands

March 4 2013

Image of Bad mouthing Lely's hands

Picture: Philip Mould & Company

In his generous review of the National Gallery's excellent new Barocci exhibition, Waldemar Januszczak makes this throwaway remark:

Hands are ­notoriously difficult to get right, even for the finest Old Masters (stand up, Peter Lely, I’m thinking of you), but Barocci emerges as something of a digital specialist.

On behalf of Lely, allow me to share with you these fine hands from a 1660s portrait of Anne Bayning. We recently had it here at the gallery. It is true that Lely, like many portraitists at work in England, sometimes left his hands up to his studio assistants. But he only did that because he knew he could get away with it. In the 17th Century, the English taste wasn't sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a well-painted hand or a stodgy one. So we only have ourselves to blame.

Even Van Dyck, one of the finest hand painters ever, sometimes slacked off when it came to hands. He did so rarely, however - when asked why he took such case paintings hands, he allegedly replied, 'Because the hands pay the bill.'

Update - a reader sends in this contender for comment of the year:


Im sorry what planet are you on? The example of hands painted by Lely are awful, no knuckle structure, white and lacking tone, elongated and curved in all the places they should be straight and straight in all the places their should be curved. Resultantly they look like flat, fat sausages squeezed out of a casing machine by someone attempting to do so for the first time. 

I have several family members who are doctors who always berate my interest in art because they believe so much of it to be anatomically inaccurate and unbelieveable, I try to argue against this for all the reasons that I hope you would agree with with but im not going to go into it here.. However the example you give..just wont stand up and you dont need a medical degree to see that.

sorry first and last AHN rant over!

Update II - another reader leaps lyrically to Lely's defence:

If I may Leave  aside the previous contributor's enquiry regarding the cosmological location of Mr Grosvenor for one moment, it is patent nonsense to say that the hands are badly executed according to shape and anatomical correctness - Doctor or no doctors..

Look a little harder and you might see the marvellous subtlety of his skill. He is painting the hands of a gentlewoman who never did manual work, and most probably cultivated a fashionably desirable skin tone of lucid paleness, hence the milky lightness. As with his predecessor Van Dyke, the slight suggestion of lucidity and purply vein under the skin is also beautifully hinted at if you look hard enough (not that difficult, surely?). Not being a cadaverous spinster of seventy, or a bruising farmer's wife used to a loamy prehensile grip year in year out, her hands therefore tend towards a slight plumpy sub-cutaneous sheath over the knuckles, surely a common physical trait the world over amongst folk still near enough to youth? The index finger of the top hand is the correct length in relation to the metacarpal area, and if you measure the whole length of the hand it is approximately the same as the distance from chin to brow, which is as it should be in anatomical study. I can see no 'straight lines'.. indeed, there are no straight lines in the human form.. every painter worth his salt in the academic tradition of the 17th C would have been taught this anyway. As for the curves... well they are Eve's blessing after all...

While another agrees that they're pretty bad:

Your "contender for comment of the year" addendum inspired me to take a closer look at the hands, and I have to agree with him.

The index finger of the right (upper) hand has an unnatural curve to it and is spread an uncomfortable distance from the middle finger, the middle finger looks unnaturally stiff - as though it had been broken and badly set so that the middle joint can't be bent - and the third and fourth look deformed, as does the joint at the base of the little finger. And where is the thumb? There is nothing to indicate that the the sitter has one.

The left (lower) hand looks much more 'loosely' painted (studio assistant?), so its defects are in a way less glaring, but the angle of the wrist makes it look sprained and feels uncomfortable to even look at, the index finger is clumsy, the middle finger again looks deformed, and the poor sitter  is apparently missing both her third and fourth fingers as well as her other thumb.

Perhaps, since you run a hands-on* blog,  you could share some close-ups of some of Van Dyke's (and others') hands for comparison purposes.

*groan - so you won't have to :)


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