Portrait of the Artist’s Wife c.1635-40
Dobson’s first wife had died in September 1634. His life is not well documented, and it is not known exactly when in the late 1630s he married his second wife, Judith, who it is presumed is portrayed here. The thickly impastoed surface is characteristic of Dobson’s early technique.
This is a very personal image, unexpectedly direct and intimate. Portraits in Britain at this time were generally formal public expressions of status. Dobson seems to have been employed mainly to paint men, for few female portraits by him survive. The present one, however, is handled with considerable delicacy and freshness.
The sitter’s glance is teasing, even challenging, and could be read as a riposte to the direct, almost confrontational gaze of her husband in his companion portrait. Dobson seems to take an erotic pleasure in contrasting the shiny texture of his wife’s cream satin cap - beneath which her hair is confined, although some carefully curled ringlets have escaped - with the fleshy texture of her breasts and their deep cleavage.
Dobson has been described as ‘the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth’ (Waterhouse, p.80). Very little is known about him or his work before 1642 when, during the Civil War, he moved with Charles I’s court to Oxford. Charles’s portraitist Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) had died the previous year, and Dobson seems to have filled the vaccuum left by his death, although it is not clear whether he ever held an official court post. Between 1642 and 1646, he worked in Oxford, painting both the various courtiers, and also the King himself.