Joan Carlile’s name is often referenced with some variation of “first”—she is generally called one of the first British professional female portraitists, one of the first British female artists to work in oil and even one of the first professional female painters in England. The key word here is “professional”—what made Carlile stand out was not just her distinctive style and her gender, but the fact that she actually earned money from her craft. She even lived and likely maintained a studio in Covent Garden, a hub for artists in the 1600s.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to actually interact with one of her groundbreaking works is rare. Only ten paintings in total have been identified as the 17th century painter’s, according to a statement from auction house Dreweatts. And this week, art buffs who wanted to own an entire tenth of Carlile’s known work missed their chance when one of her artworks went to the auction block—and remained unsold.
The artist, who is generally known for her portraiture, produced paintings that were often small in size, showed full-length figures and generally depicted women in lush outdoor scenery, writes Tate Britain curator Tabitha Barber.
Carlile’s husband had close ties to the monarchy, including serving as Gentleman of the Bows to Charles I, which gave his wife an access to the upper class that other female artists may not have had.
Nonetheless, she was all but forgotten by the art world, and though all of her extant works are originals, per the National Trust, she was described as a mere copyist of the Old Masters after her death.
Spurring her renaissance in modern art history, academics came across her name on a 1658 list of “noteworthy English artists,” reports Artnet’s Dorian Batycka. She was one of only four female oil painters named.
The opportunity to purchase a Carlile portrait was unique. But though her painting of the Wharton family was estimated to go for between £30,000- £50,000, a Dreweatts spokesperson says it did not sell.
“It was extremely rare for such an accomplished, pioneering woman to achieve success in an age when women had few career options and even fewer rights,” Dreweatts picture specialist Anne Gerritsen tells FAD Magazine’s Mark Westall. “For a very long time, women artists have been largely ignored by art history and our view of British art in the 17th century has been dominated by male artists.”
The portrait of the Wharton family on auction at Dreweatts actually defies many preconceptions about Carlile’s work. Unlike her smaller canvases, the oil painting is large and shows three of the Wharton children: Anne, Philadelphia and Thomas Wharton, who would become the 5th Lord Wharton. Experts have identified the family based on an inscription on the lower right-hand corner.
The painting itself is certainly distinctive: The sumptuous fabric of the children’s dress, with its bright sheen and rich colors, serves as a stark contrast to their understated facial expressions. This was typical of Carlile’s work, Dreweatts says.
“The painting itself has a charmingly awkward style, redolent of [Carlile],” writes Dreweatts in a statement. “The play of light and precise highlights on the silk folds of the children’s clothing, and their delicately handled faces are typical of her work.”
The portrait was likely commissioned by the children’s father, Philip, 4th Lord Wharton, a political reformer who supported parliamentary oversight of the king, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Only two generations later, the family lost all of its titles when Philip’s grandson was indicted for treason for helping Charles Edward Stuart, better known as the “Young Pretender,” lead an unsuccessful rebellion against the crown.
For Carlile, the portrait must have symbolized some modicum of commercial success. It is one of a series of family portrayals. If the artist did in fact paint all of these works, according to Dreweatts, “it would have been an important commission.”
In recent years, Carlile’s own name has ascended as an important reminder that the pantheon of well-known artists need not be dominated by men. In 2016, her portrait of an unknown lady became the earliest work by a female artist to be a part of the Tate’s collection, reported BBC News’ Rebecca Jones at the time.
“You begin to think that great artists are male artists,” curator Tabitha Barber told the BBC. “We have a big strategy in trying to make women more visible on our walls.”