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Jewellery in Paintings You Need to See

As we know, there is nothing quite like seeing a historic antique jewel in real life. Cradling the piece within your palm, feeling the repoussé or cannetille Gold with your fingertips and gazing into the embers of a fiery gemstone. But there is also something so romantic about seeing the style of jewels that we see everyday beautifully stylised and painted within portraits. 

From the sheen of Pearl drops in Girl with a Pearl Earring, to the glittering Cut Steel décolletage of Catherine the Great, the history of jewellery has certainly been learnt through seeing these ancient decadent portraits of rulers, muses and genteel men and women. 

Portrait of Catherine The II of Russia, c.1780s, Source - Wikimedia Commons

One only needs to have a look at the fascinating Brodgen Albums in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection to see how jewellery designs were rendered and illustrated. How did they capture the sheen of the lustrous Pearls, or the glitter of Diamonds. Most importantly, in art, jewellery was more than just a reflection of wealth, jewellery helps to capture and tell the story of the painting.

lllustration of Pendant from the Brogden Albums, c.1860, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum 

We have chosen a few of our many favourite paintings below, so you can marvel at just how extraordinary these pieces were, as well as wonder how they were painstakingly painted in such a realistic manner. 

Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes

Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes, c.1650, Jan Boeckhurst, Source -Wikimedia Commons

Held within the National Museum of Warsaw, this classical style painting of Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes has much to draw your eyes towards. But, at the centre of the composition is a glittering bowl of trinkets, with a strand of decadent Pearls threaded through the woman’s fingertips. This was a pivotal moment within the legend of Achilles. In ancient Greek myth, Achilles mother, fearful that her son would die in battle, concealed Achilles as a woman in King Lycomedes household. The Greek chieftains were suspicious of course, so they placed a bowl heaping glittering jewellery and weapons infront of the women as gifts. Unlike the other women, Achilles instantly went towards the swords and shields, revealing his true identity. 

Detail from Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes, c.1650, Jan Boeckhurst, Source -Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, Achilles is placed in the shadows, with the light placed upon the centre of the jewels. Just like Lycomede’s daughters, we instinctively want to grab those jewels too. 

Portrait of Julia Telyakovskova

Portrait of Julia Telyakvskova, c.1840-1860, Gravrii Yakolev, Source - Wikimedia Commons

This 19th century portrait of Julia Telyakovskova is absolutely stunning. But just look at those jewels! This portrait is housed within the Hermitage Museum. Whilst the sitter is named, there is little information about who she is. But it is clear that she is dressed as a distinguished upper class Russian noblewoman. Her prettily coiled coiffure is pinned with jewels, and she does have quite an impressive bangle stack. From a snake symbolic of commitment and the painted bangle of her husband, we can read plenty from the way this woman is dressed and bedecked. Whilst the jewellery itself is a-typical of Victorian and Georgian designs. 

Detail from Portrait of Julia Telyakvskova, c.1840-1860, Gravrii Yakolev, Source - Wikimedia Commons

 

Portrait of Selvaggia Sassetti

Portrait of Selvaggia Sassetti, c.1487-88, David Bigordi, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The minute we saw this striking portrait of Selvaggia Sassetti, and THAT beautiful coral beaded necklace, we had to include her within this blog. Currently within the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is believed that this portrait is in fact a marriage portrait. Which is why she is pictured wearing the very finest and glowing Coral beads. Coral was often pictured upon the décolletage of Renaissance elites, not only because it was fashionable and expensive, but also because it was believed to symbolise Christ’s passion and is often the gemstone of choice for a few Madonna portraits. Not to mention, Coral was also symbolic of fertility, which is perhaps fitting for a marriage portrait just like this!

Detail from Portrait of Selvaggia Sassetti, c.1487-88, David Bigordi, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Penitent Magdalene 

The Penitent Magdalene, c.1594-1596, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Source - Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just the jewellery that is the sitter is wearing that makes an impact, but also how jewellery in absence is also portrayed. Take Caravaggio’s portrait of the Penitent Magadalene, with a string of Pearls, Pearl bow earrings, bracelet and long Gold filigree necklace just discarded to the side. It’s highly emotionally charged painting, as Mary Magadelene is bowed with her head in sorrow. The jewellery is meant to symbolise her dissolute life, as she leaves her former life after the Ascension of Jesus and repents within the desert. Jewels were wholeheartedly considered to be womanly objects, and a sign of distinguished rank. But also, this was painted during the reformation and counter reformation, where ideals of decadence were also associated with debauchery. That being said, the jewels thrown to the side is also an allusion to Mary Magdalene’s past as a prostitute. The painting at the time was actually very groundbreaking, as its realism was a huge departure from how Mary had been formerly portrayed in portraiture up until this point. 

Detail from the Penitent Magdalene, c.1594-1596, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Source - Wikimedia Commons

The Grace Rose 

Frederick Sandys, 1829–1904, British, Grace Rose, 1866, Oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, B1993.20

This 1866 portrait by Frederick Sandys of Grace Rose is typical of Pre-Raphaelite style. Surrounded by beautiful pink and red roses, the eye is drawn towards Grace’s blue eyes, blue trim of her dress, a her light blue cabochon ring. But what is all the more striking is her stunning bright Gold jewellery. Her Gold spherical necklace, Etruscan Revival earrings and Gaelic-style torque bracelet appear to glow against her pale skin. Often Pre-Raphaelite paintings depicted their women subjects as mythological subjects, and the choice of jewellery on the sitter would reflect this. For instance, in another famous painting of his, The Helen of Troy painted in 1867, his red-headed subject is pictured wearing two stunning necklaces, a Gold and Coral swag necklace and a Coral fringe necklace. As mentioned previously, Coral was believed to be associated with both divinity and expense, making it a fitting choice for what was considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Although we cannot be entirely certain as to whom Sandys was trying to depict, and we are unsure as to whether this portrait is one with mythological origins, but the name could be an allusion to the stereotypical English Rose persona of beauty that dominated the Victorian period. 

Frederick Sandys, 1829–1904, British, Grace Rose, 1866, Oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, B1993.20

Coronation Portrait of the Empress Josephine


Coronation Portrait of The Empress Joséphine, c.1807-1808, Baron François Gérard, Source - Wikimedia Commons

And last, but certainly not least, the coronation portrait of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Throughout her life, Empress Josephine is pictured wearing a myriad of jewels, from a cameo parure to the enchanting Emerald and Diamond collection she is pictured wearing here. It is important to note that much of jewellery pictured within the paintings may not actually exist, however, we have reason to believe that this Emerald creation that Josephine is wearing did and still does exist. Through Josephine’s descendents in the Norwegian royal family, much of her rumoured jewellery is within the Norwegian crown jewels, with many bearing stylistic similarities to the pieces Josephine wore in a few of her portraits. That being said, it could also have been broken down and incorporated into this Emerald set gifted by Napeoleon and Josephine to her daughter Stephanie De Beauharnais, now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Nevertheless the splendour and richness in this portrait is undeniable, all achieved through the power of jewellery. 

Detail from Coronation Portrait of The Empress Joséphine, c.1807-1808, Baron François Gérard, Source - Wikimedia Commons

 

Molly Chatterton

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