Above image: Met Museum, Fifth Avenue by Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
An avid lover of Tudor and other English history, I’m always on the lookout for ways to get up close and personal with English royals without flying across the Atlantic. I’m delighted to share three opportunities to see royal portraits on the East Coast of the United States: The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC; the Met Museum in New York City; and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.
Start your journey at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Part of the vast Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery is best known for its portraits of famous Americans. The America’s Presidents gallery displays national leaders through the years. Recently, the portraits of President Barack Obama and especially First Lady Michelle Obama brought in droves of visitors. Another extremely popular portrait is “The Four Justices,” a stunning portrait that highlights the accomplishments of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan.
But it might surprise you (as it surprised the guard who told me this portrait was not in the museum) that a lovely portrait of Queen Elizabeth I also awaits you in the heart of Washington, DC.
This lovely portrait is one of the earliest painted of Elizabeth after she took the throne in 1558. The portrait contains several elements through which Elizabeth reinforces her royal status. The words “Elizabeth Regina” are bold and prominent. The square jewel around her neck, known as the “Mirror of France,” was owned by Henry VIII and demonstrates her place in the Tudor succession. The new Queen had spent the previous 11 years living and dressing quietly during the reigns of her half-brother and half-sister. Her wardrobe her still carries some of that understated sense: she is richly attired and draped in ermine, and the black gown sets off the jewels beautifully. Still, this image does not create the image of spectacular wealth that some of her later portraits do.
I love visiting this portrait, which is located in the early America section. It’s usually quiet there, without many visitors. Elizabeth’s interest in expansion and exploration certainly contributed to the interest in the New World, and her presence in DC reflects that.
And now, on to one of the most famous museums in the world, The Met.
The Met is famous for many things: collections from Egypt and Rome, mummies, Impressionist paintings, world masterpieces. It seems that every civilization is represented in its vast collection. But did you know that collection includes the armor of King Henry VIII?
There are two suits of armor believed to have belonged to England’s most-married king in the “Arms and Armor” gallery. The near piece in this photo is from 1527, when the King was a dashing young athlete and ruler. It’s about this time he fell in love with Anne Boleyn. He was known for physical prowess, success in the jousting field, and a large and imposing presence.
The second suit is from nearly 20 years later, 1544.
As he neared the end of his life, Henry’s size grew to dangerously large proportions. This armor demonstrates the growth of the king more accurately than anything else. Portraits could exaggerate or modify to praise the royal ego; armor had to fit. We know from Henry’s armor that at age 23, he had waist size of 34.7” and a chest size of 41.7”. Because of injuries that didn’t heal and concern about the succession, Henry stopped participating in jousting and other sports after 1536. By 1539, he had grown to a waist size of 51 inches and chest size of more than 54 inches. And he kept growing.
When Henry wore this armor in 1544, he had to be hoisted onto his poor horse with a crane. He is thought to have weighed nearly 400 pounds at his death. You can see some of this growth for yourself at the Met!
Finally, head up to the Yale Center for British Art.
It’s easy to imagine that The Yale Center for British Art would include British monarchs. But right now, there’s something really special. On loan is a spectacular portrait of Elizabeth I that has never been exhibited in the US before. In fact, as it’s part of a private collection, it has rarely been exhibited at all.
I have to admit that the first time I walked around the corner and came face to face with this marvelous portrait, I gasped so loudly the guard came over to see if I was all right. I was more than all right—I was in Heaven. I had read about this portrait several times and poured over reproductions, but seeing it live literally took my breath away.
This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is from about 1567, approximately 10 years into her reign. She is using various elements to telegraph her attractiveness as a marriage partner—the red dress, the excessive and voluptuous foliage, the carnations on her shoulder and in her hand. At the time this was painted, the Queen was negotiating for a match with Charles II, Archduke of Austria.
This portrait of the Queen provides a wonderful contrast to the one in DC. At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth faced numerous challenges. Mary Queen of Scots claimed the throne of England the very day Elizabeth inherited it. Catholics in England as well as abroad rejected her right to the throne. Powerful rulers in Spain and France, as well as the Pope, questioned her authority and were primed to challenge her any time. Her quiet portrait reflects some of the introspection she must have felt.
In the later portrait, we see a Queen who is coming into herself as a ruler. The red dress is dramatic and eye-catching, as is the full-sized dimension. Once again, she is wearing the “Mirror of France,” but she is wearing numerous other jewels, including ropes of pearls and the large jewel hanging from her waist. She seems to be in motion, walking along a gallery. Behind her is a wall of gold, complete with the royal coat of arms and the royal motto: “Dieu et mon droit.” There are still challenges to her throne, but she seems to be telling us she is absolutely ready for them. For example, her portrayal of herself as an attractive marriage partner allowed her to navigate choppy international waters for years, keeping possible consorts in friendly states even as marriage negotiations faltered. The Queen eventually reigned for nearly 45 years, dying peacefully in her bed.
This portrait will travel to the Met later this year for the “Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” in October 2020.
The Yale Center has other wonderful portraits, including others of Queen Elizabeth, along with her favorite, Robert Dudley, and her faithful ministers, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham. A real treat for English history lovers!!
It’s always wonderful to visit the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Hampton Court Palace, and other places in London that boast wonderful royal portrait collections. But it’s also good to remember we can visit Kings and Queens right here in the States!
At the current time, all these museums are closed as a precaution because of COVID-19. Please check the websites for up-to-date information.
8th and F Streets, MW
Washington, DC 20001
11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily
Closed December 25
Admission is free
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and first Monday in. May
Admission (for visitors not from New York State):
General admission: $25
Seniors (65 and over): $17
Members and patrons: free
Children (under 12): free
1080 Chapel Street
New Haven, Connecticut. 06510
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is free
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Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger is a popular speaker and author who specializes in Early Modern History, particularly the Tudors and Shakespeare. She has enjoyed speaking audiences across the nation about Henry VIII and his Six Wives, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, the Wars of the Roses, Jane Austen, Mothers of the Monarchs, and Shakespeare. She is a popular speaker for Smithsonian, Royal Oak Foundation, Agecroft Hall, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, TEDx, and numerous community venues. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and holds graduate degrees in Education from the University of Virginia and English from the University of Utah. The former Manager of Visitor Education of Folger Shakespeare Library, Carol Ann designs interactive Shakespeare programs for students and families. She also delivers corporate communication workshops for organizations in the Washington, DC area and is the author of Building Relationships, One Conversation at a Time: A Guide for Work and Home. Carol Ann is currently writing a book about the Tudors. She loves traveling to England to research some of her favorite historical friends, up close and personal.