Performing Selfhood

“The major artistic genre in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was the art of portraiture. This is the medium through which the costumed body in Renaissance England can be examined. Portraiture actively participated in the social and political life of the day ”

Queen Elizabeth I had her portrait painted many times during her reign. She understood the importance of public relations and revealing portraits of herself to the public was a way of creating a relationship with her people.

“the English recognized the near-magical power of portraits and their ceremonial presence in the space they occupied, in which they could replace the persons they represented.”

Elizabeth I, Nicholas Hilliard c. 1572 – 6


Queen Elizabeth was considered the greatest actress of her realm. Her carefully costumed her body was so impressive during public appearances and in her portraits. And she knew exactly how to present herself in person and when getting her portrait painted. While sitting for Nicholas Hilliard (who was her favorite portraitist), for the painting the Arte of Limning, she instructed him on the best way to seat her. ‘seeing that the best to showe onesselfe neadeth no shadow of place but rather the open light’. Not only did the lighting matter in the painting, but also the carefully selected

Nicholas Hilliard Self Portrait

flattering pose, as well as the objects featured in the painting. Every object had a meaning that had to do with the person’s attributes, or told a story about the person’s achievements.  For example, in the painting The Armada, by George Gower, Elizabeth I is shown appearing in front of two paintings. One painting shows the Spanish Armada being defeated, and the other shows the storm that helped wash out England’s enemy. Then her hand is placed on top of a globe hovering over England which also symbolizes her rule, and a crown beside her symbolizes her royalty. This painting clearly depicts one of the most important battles in England’s history, a battle that was lead by Elizabeth I herself. An article on the battle linked here.

The Armada Portrait, George Gower c.1588

The importance of angles and lighting in portraits is still extremely relevant today. Anyone who is on social networking sites or apps are exercising a crude form of same kind of angle seeking and lighting as portrait artists from the 16th century. Everyone pretty much knows all the right angles for their photos.

Terrible, yet relevant.


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