Search the Collections

Godfrey Kneller
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Lubeck, Germany
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
England’s leading portrait painter for much of his long career, Sir Godfrey Kneller recorded the English royalty and aristocracy from King Charles II (1630-1685) to King George I (1660-1627). Born Gottfried Kneller (or Kniller), probably on August 8, 1646, in Lübeck, Germany on the Baltic Sea, his father Zachary Kneller (1611-1675) was the chief surveyor for the city of Lübeck. Intended for a military career, he studied mathematics at the University of Leyden in Holland. His interest turned to art and he went to Amsterdam to study; he studied with Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) and may have studied with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Kneller’s earliest dated painting, a portrait of Johann Philipp von Schönborn (1605-1673), then Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, is from 1666. Contemporary sources claim that he traveled to Italy, visiting Rome and Venice in the early 1670s, and was back in Lübeck by 1675. He had moved to London by 1676, where he stayed with a merchant named John Banckes (1637-1710); Kneller’s 1676 portrait of Banckes survives (London; Tate Britain). Other portrait commissions swiftly arrived, including one for the portrait of Charles II in 1678. Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) had been painter to the King for a number of years, but after his death in 1680 Kneller became well established as one of the leading court painters. Among other tasks he was sent by Charles to Paris in 1684 to paint the portrait of Louis XIV (1638-1715). Kneller’s favored position continued through the death of Charles II, the accession of James II (1633-1701), the Glorious Revolution and flight of James in 1688 and the accession of William of Orange (1650-1702, the grandson of Charles I) and his wife Mary (1662-1694, the daughter of James II) to the English throne in 1689. The new monarchs appointed Kneller and John Riley (1646-1691) jointly to the office of Principal Painter. After Riley’s death, Kneller became the sole Principal Painter, a position he held until his death. For some time William and Mary would sit for no other painter. Kneller was rewarded with a knighthood in 1692, an honorary Doctor of Law from the University of Oxford in 1695 and was made a Knight of the Holy Roman Empire in 1700, attesting to his fame throughout Europe. His portrait subjects included a large number of the nobililty and aristocracy. A prodigious talent, Kneller had the ability to sketch and paint very rapidly, and some 870 paintings are attributed to him. He painted series of works, such as his series of portraits of aristocratic women known as the “Windsor Beauties,” and fourteen portraits of admirals commissioned by Queen Anne (1665-1714, Queen Mary’s younger sister) after her ascension in 1702. In 1704 Kneller married Susanna Grave, a widow; they had no children. In addition to his portraits of royalty, Kneller is remembered for his portraits of members of the Kit-Kat Club, a social clulb to which Kneller belonged. He created about 40 portraits during the first two decades of the 1700s, in a then-unusual format of 36 by 28 inches, depicting the head, shoulders and hands of his sitters, a format which became standard for 18th-century English portraits. Kneller became very wealthy, both from the sale of his works and his investments. He built a lavish country house in Middlesex he called Whitton House, and in 1711 founded an academy of painting and drawing in London. King George I took the unusual step of granting Kneller a baronetcy in 1715. Hs works created after 1710 have been criticized as lesser in quality, and the volume of works declined. He died in October 1723. At his death perhaps hundreds of unfinished works were in his studio. (TNB 5/2013) Selected Bibliography: Stewart, J. Douglas. “Kneller, Sir Godfrey.” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Stewart, J. Douglas. Godfrey Kneller. Exhibition catalog. London: National Portrait Gallery and G. Bell and Sons, 1971.