Cornelius Johnson, also known by various name variants including Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen, was a portrait painter with Dutch or Flemish ancestry. His career spanned from at least 1618 to 1643 in England, after which he relocated to the Netherlands, ultimately settling in Utrecht, where he passed away in 1661.
Early Life and Training
Cornelius Johnson was born in London to parents of Dutch or Flemish origin. His father was a religious refugee from Antwerp, and his paternal grandfather had roots in Cologne. He was baptized at the Dutch Church at Austin Friars, a place frequented by the Netherlandish community in London. Johnson’s artistic training likely occurred in the Netherlands, possibly under the tutelage of Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt. Throughout his career, he was influenced by the artistic styles and trends of the Netherlands.
Johnson’s early portraits date back to 1617, with his English portrait work commencing in 1619. Initially, he created head-only portraits, but he later expanded his repertoire to include full-length and group portraits. While Johnson was indeed a skilled portraitist, he lacked the dramatic flair and mastery of artists like Anthony van Dyck.
Throughout his career, Cornelius Johnson produced hundreds of portraits, primarily of emerging members of the English gentry. His clientele came from the gentry, but not the highest echelons of society. Notable sitters included Dutch immigrants, gentlemen, and courtiers. His portraits, particularly those of bust length, captured the reserved nature of the English landed gentry and minor aristocracy.
Johnson’s subjects were usually depicted against dark, undefined backgrounds, with meticulous attention to the details of their clothing, making his works valuable resources for costume historians. He used a technique of “fictive” oval frames, where the appearance of a wooden or marble oval surround was painted onto the panel.
His style varied over his career, and he incorporated new influences into his work seamlessly. Despite the evolution in his style, he consistently signed and dated his pieces, a practice uncommon at the time.
Move to the Netherlands
In 1643, during the English Civil War, Cornelius Johnson left England for Middelburg in the Netherlands, where he joined the Guild of St. Luke. He obtained parliamentary permission to transport his belongings, including paintings, to the Netherlands. From 1646 to 1652, he resided in Amsterdam before finally settling in Utrecht, where he spent the remainder of his life and was eventually buried.
Legacy and Collections
Cornelius Johnson’s work can be found in prominent collections and institutions, both in the United Kingdom and abroad. Notable locations include the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and many provincial galleries across the UK. His portraits are also held in private collections within stately homes in Britain.
Outside the UK, his work is housed in institutions such as the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, and the Yale Center for British Art.
The artist is known by numerous name variations, leading to some debate over the correct form. Johnson frequently altered his signature throughout his career. He added “Londines” (London) to his signature initially, later changing it to “van Ceulen” (“from Cologne”) during his time in the Netherlands. However, it’s crucial to note that while in England, he consistently spelled his name as “Cornelius Johnson.” The name variants such as “Janssens” or “Jansen” are not commonly associated with him, despite occasional use.
Cornelius Johnson was a prolific portrait painter of Dutch heritage who made a significant impact on English portraiture during the 17th century. His works continue to be appreciated for their detailed depictions and contributions to the understanding of the period’s fashion and society.
Johnson’s Style and Technique
Cornelius Johnson’s artistic style and technique evolved over the course of his career. His early works, such as the 1620 portrait of Sir Alexander Temple, were described as somewhat wooden and lacking vitality. However, within a short period, he made significant advancements in his technique, with his later works exhibiting a mastery of portraiture.
One of Johnson’s notable techniques was the use of “fictive” oval frames, creating the illusion of a wooden or marble oval surround painted onto the panel. This trompe-l’œil effect was a distinctive feature of his early career.
Johnson was known for meticulous attention to detail, especially in the depiction of clothing. This precision made his portraits invaluable for costume historians studying the fashion of the time. He used various techniques, including wet-in-wet and discreet layering, to achieve particular textures and effects. He also employed high-quality pigments that aged well, ensuring the longevity and vibrancy of his works.
His use of pigments, like azurite blue, exemplified his ability to harness the unique characteristics of each pigment to create distinctive textures and visual details. Johnson’s expertise extended to handling difficult pigments like orpiment, and he even painted a portrait of Théodore de Mayerne, who sought his advice on working with orpiment.
For draperies, Johnson employed different techniques, using combinations of pigments like white, oker, bone black, indigo, smalt, and ultramarine to achieve specific effects. His knowledge of pigments and techniques added depth and richness to his portraits.
Patronage and Influence
Johnson’s patrons primarily came from the gentry, including Dutch immigrants, gentlemen, and courtiers. While he received some commissions from the English crown, he did not attain the same level of recognition as artists like Anthony van Dyck. Nevertheless, his skill and attention to detail attracted a devoted clientele.
Johnson’s influence on other artists, both lesser-known contemporaries and more accomplished figures like van Dyck, is noteworthy. He was one of the few artists in England at the time who consistently signed and dated their work, a practice that set a standard for the period.
Exhibitions and Collections
Johnson’s work has been featured in various exhibitions, and his portraits are held in numerous important collections worldwide. In recent years, exhibitions dedicated solely to his work have showcased his contributions to English portraiture. The National Portrait Gallery in London hosted a display of Johnson’s work curated by Karen Hearn in 2015.
Many of his portraits can be found in prestigious institutions, including the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and provincial galleries across the UK. Additionally, his works are cherished in private collections within British stately homes.
Beyond the UK, his art has found homes in renowned institutions like the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, and the Yale Center for British Art, attesting to his enduring impact on the world of portraiture.
Johnson’s Signature and Name Variants
Cornelius Johnson’s name has caused some controversy due to the large number of variants found in historical records. The artist himself contributed to this confusion by frequently changing his signature throughout his career.
In his later years in the Netherlands, Johnson added the words “van Ceulen” (meaning “from Cologne”) to his signature, possibly as a marketing strategy to emphasize his foreign origins. Prior to this, he had incorporated “Londines” (London) into his signature, but he ceased using this form after the outbreak of the first Anglo-Dutch war in 1652.
The variants of his name include Cornelius Johnson, Cornelius Jonson van Ceulen, Cornelis Jansz. van Ceulen, and various other permutations. The prevalence of these variants has led to debates over the correct form of his name. Some art historians argue that the most accurate representation of his signature is “Cornelius Jonson van Ceulen.”
However, it is worth noting that while in England, the artist consistently spelled his name as “Cornelius Johnson.” His signature frequently included the abbreviation “fecit C J” or, in some instances, “Cornelius Johnson fecit.”
Art historians have protested against the habit of referring to him as “Janssens,” emphasizing that Johnson himself used the forms “Johnson” and “Jonson van Ceulen” in his signatures. The prevalence of these different variants underscores the challenges in establishing a standardized name for historical figures.
Cornelius Johnson left behind a significant body of work that offers valuable insights into the society and portraiture of 17th-century England. Some of his notable works include:
- Portrait of William Shakespeare: Although a painting traditionally attributed to Johnson in the Folger Shakespeare Library has a long association with the famous playwright William Shakespeare, it is no longer believed to be by his hand. Nonetheless, it remains a subject of interest and historical significance due to its connection to the literary icon.
- Royal Portraits: Johnson had the opportunity to paint members of the English royalty. His portraits of Charles I, Charles II, and James II as children are housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London. He also collaborated with Gerard Houckgeest on a portrait of Charles I’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.
- Portrait of Lady Rose MacDonnell of Antrim: Among the many portraits Johnson painted of the emerging English gentry is the portrait of Lady Rose MacDonnell of Antrim, which showcases his ability to capture the subtleties of his subjects.
- Portrait of Susanna Temple: This portrait of Susanna Temple, the grandmother of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, is one of Johnson’s early surviving works. It has been engraved and preserved, providing a glimpse into the artistry of the time.
- Group Portraits: While Johnson was known for his individual portraits, he also ventured into group portraits. One of the earliest known group portraits attributed to him is that of Clement Pargeter, William Peacock, and Thomas Babb.
Technique and Style
Cornelius Johnson’s artistic technique and style evolved over his career. His early works were characterized by “fictive” oval frames painted on panel, creating a trompe-l’œil effect. He was known for his meticulous depiction of clothing, making his portraits valuable resources for costume historians.
Johnson employed various techniques, including wet-in-wet and discreet layering, in his paintings. He used high-quality and expensive pigments that have aged well, which allowed him to achieve distinctive textures and eye-catching details. His use of pigments like azurite blue showcased his mastery in bringing out the unique characteristics of each color.
Over time, Johnson’s style adapted to new influences while retaining its unique charm. While he may not have reached the level of acclaim enjoyed by artists like van Dyck, he left behind a body of work that is celebrated for its exquisite detail and ability to capture the reticence of the English-landed gentry.
Exhibitions and Collections
Cornelius Johnson’s works have been featured in numerous exhibitions and are part of prestigious art collections worldwide. Some of the notable institutions where his works can be found include:
- National Gallery
- Tate Gallery
- The National Portrait Gallery
- Royal Collection
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery
- Dulwich Picture Gallery
- Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
- Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht
- Yale Center for British Art
His paintings are also present in private collections within stately homes in Britain, further cementing his place in the history of English portraiture.
Cornelius Johnson’s career as a portrait painter in 17th-century England left an indelible mark on the art world. His ability to adapt his style, meticulous attention to detail, and diverse body of work make him a significant figure in the annals of art history. His portraits continue to be appreciated for their historical and artistic value, offering a window into the world of the English gentry during his era.
Legacy and Influence
Despite the naming discrepancies, Cornelius Johnson’s contributions to the art world are well-documented. His meticulous and evolving style, as well as his ability to capture the essence of his subjects through detailed portraiture, have left a lasting legacy. While he may not have achieved the same level of fame as some of his contemporaries, his works continue to be studied and admired for their historical and artistic significance.
Cornelius Johnson’s ability to adapt to changing influences while maintaining his unique artistic voice allowed him to create a body of work that offers valuable insights into the fashion, society, and portraiture of 17th-century England. His portraits, with their meticulous depiction of clothing and the reticence of the English landed gentry, remain treasures in the world of art history.
In summary, Cornelius Johnson, known for his versatile portraiture, attention to detail, and signature variations, is an artist whose works continue to be celebrated and studied for their historical and artistic significance. His contributions to English portraiture during the 17th century have earned him a notable place in the annals of art history.
Cornelius Johnson’s legacy endures in the world of portraiture and art history. While he may not have achieved the same level of fame as some of his contemporaries, such as Anthony van Dyck, he made significant contributions to the field of English portraiture during his time.
- Prolific Portraitist: Johnson’s prolific output of portraits of the emerging English gentry provides valuable historical documentation of the individuals and fashions of his era. His works continue to be studied by art historians and costume researchers for insights into 17th-century clothing and society.
- Technical Mastery: Johnson’s skill in handling pigments and creating distinctive textures with his choice of colors, such as azurite blue, showcases his technical mastery. His ability to bring out the unique characteristics of each pigment contributed to the visual appeal of his portraits.
- Adaptability: One of Johnson’s strengths as an artist was his adaptability. He seamlessly incorporated new influences into his style without creating discordant works. This ability allowed him to cater to the evolving tastes of his clientele.
- Historical Significance: Johnson’s portraits of notable figures, including members of the English royalty, provide historical records of the individuals and their appearances. These portraits offer a visual connection to the past and play a role in preserving the history of the period.
- Artistic Influence: While Johnson may not have reached the pinnacle of fame enjoyed by his peers, his work influenced other artists, both lesser-known painters and more accomplished figures like van Dyck. His attention to clothing and costume details had a particular impact on costume historians and artists.
Cornelius Johnson, a portrait painter of Dutch heritage, left a lasting legacy in English portraiture during the 17th century. His meticulous attention to detail, evolving artistic style, and influence on other artists have solidified his place in the history of art. His portraits not only provide a window into the fashion and society of his time but also serve as enduring examples of skillful and detailed portraiture.