Corneille de Lyon’s appealing portrait of the recently-widowed Mary of Guise (1515-60) was most likely painted to promote an advantageous second marriage. Mary was a member of a powerful French aristocratic family, and her portrait would have been painted in the autumn of 1537 when she was in Lyon with the court. By the end of the year she had been persuaded by the French king to marry James V of Scotland, to help maintain the ‘Auld Alliance’ between the two countries.
Twelve years after James V’s death, Mary became regent of Scotland, ruling the country on behalf of their daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been living in France since she was a small child. Mary’s regency was focused on supporting her daughter’s dynastic rights and (unsuccessfully) on keeping Scotland Catholic and pro-French. Mary’s bravery and determination during this period of religious and political turmoil won her great respect and she remains a popular figure to this day.
The Netherlandish artist Corneille de Lyon (around 1510 - around 1575) was from The Hague but worked in France, where he produced small-scale portraits painted on wood, all with plain green or blue backgrounds. Despite their diminutive size Corneille’s portraits give the viewer an insight to the sitters’ personalities, and in this portrait we can sense the intelligence and humour that Mary of Guise was famous for.
This portrait will be included in the exhibition Church and State when the Portrait Gallery reopens in 2011. It was chosen as May’s Portrait of the Month because it was on 9 May 1538 that Mary married James V, by proxy, and became queen of Scots.