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Venetia Digby on her Deathbed

Van Dyck's portrait 'Venetia, Lady Digby on her Deathbed' is arguably the finest English example of a particular genre of portraiture more commonly found in northern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In England, very few examples of death-bed scenes from this period have actually survived. While in northern Europe it was not uncommon to find royalty, clergymen and particularly children and artists painted just after their death, there appears to be no particular social or religious pattern emerging from the six or seven known deathbed portraits surviving in this country. They range from another wife, painted just a few years after Venetia in the north of England and rather unusually showing mourners ('Sir Thomas Aston and his Wife', Manchester City Art Gallery); to a number of dead males, only one of whom is securely identified ('John Tradescant on his Deathbed', Ashmolean Museum); and Samuel Cooper's poignant drawing of his young dead nephew, which is held in a private collection.

The identified sitters in these pictures are all Protestant, while Venetia and the artist who painted her were both Catholics, part of the Catholic circle around Queen Henrietta Maria. What distinguishes Venetia's portrait from the others is not only its superior artistic quality, but also the amount of information we have about the commission and the sitter's death. This is because her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1664), the famous writer, sailor, diplomat and alchemist, mourned her loss extravagantly and left many detailed personal letters.

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