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Philippe Vignon (1638-1701)

Louise Renee de Penancoet de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth and Aubigny (1649-1734) c.1673

Oil on canvas | 126.2 x 102.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405882

Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kéroualle replaced Barbara Villiers as Charles II's principal mistress in 1671 and remained in his affections until his death. Born to an ancient, though impoverished family from Brittany, Louise served at the French court as maid of honour to Charles's sister, Henrietta Anne, who was married to Louis XIV's younger brother, the Duke of Orléans. Louise first visited England in 1670 when she accompanied Henrietta Anne on a diplomatic mission that resulted in the (secret) Treaty of Dover. The death of Henrietta Anne in that year left Louise unprovided for, and she took up a position as maid of honour to Catherine ofBraganza. She soon attracted the attention of the king and within a year became his mistress. In 1672 she bore him a son, Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond (1672–1723), and the following year she was created Duchess of Portsmouth. In a letter of 1684 the king wrote: 'I should do my selfe wrong if I tould you that I love you better then all the world besides, for that were making a comparison where 'tis impossible to expresse the true passion and kindnesse I have for my dearest dearest fubs'. Fubs' was Charles's pet name for Louise, equivalent to 'chubby', and referred to her 'childish, simple, and baby face', as John Evelyn described her in November 1670 amusingly, the new royal yacht was named HMY Fubbs in 1682.

The duchess was an influential figure at court, promoting French interests and often acting as an intermediary between the king, his ministers and the French ambassadors, though she was deeply disliked by the English people. Her magnificent apartments at Whitehall, at the southern end of the Long Matted Gallery, were the focus of both pleasure and power, their lavish decoration signifying her political and social influence at court.

The duchess's influence ceased with the king's death in 1685 and she returned to France soon afterwards. French artists such as Philippe Vignon and Henri Gascar (1634/ 5–1701; cat. 167) were encouraged by the duchess, although she was also painted by Lely (Althorp; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Vignon was appointed as Limner in Ordinary to Charles II in 1669. He has depicted the duchess wearing a low-cut lavender-coloured gown brocaded with gold flowers and lined with blue silk over a loose chemise with flowers at her breast. Her fashionable French hairstyle known as l'hurlu brelu, was said to have been devised by the French hairdresser Madame Martin at the court of Versailles in 1671.

Text adapted from Charles II: Art and Power, London, 2017.