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Godfrey Kneller

(Lübeck 1646 – 1723 London)
1 work in the Collection

Bakker, Piet. “Godfrey Kneller” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed May 19, 2024).


Godfrey Kneller, né Gottfried Kniller, was born in Germany and educated in the Netherlands and Italy; he is regarded, however, primarily as an English painter. In 1676, Kneller moved to England, where he changed his name, and by the turn of the eighteenth century had become one of the most influential English portraitists. English and foreign nobility flocked to his London workshop. His talent was held in high esteem by English kings, and after the death of Sir Peter Lely (1618–80) Kneller became Principal Painter to the Crown, a position he held virtually uninterrupted for years. Kneller received a knighthood from William III (1650–1702) in 1692, and his last patron, George I (1660–1727), made him a baronet in 1715, the highest title ever granted to a painter at the time. The artist also enjoyed a substantial reputation beyond the British Isles and was made a knight of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705). The lovely country house Kneller built at Whitton, Middlesex, in 1709 also reflects his social standing. It is therefore no surprise that when he died in 1723 he was buried in grand style at Twickenham.

Such a dazzling career attracted much comment, and already in his own day his life and work were written about in England, as well as in the Netherlands where Arnold Houbraken described Kneller’s life in his Schouburgh. Although the numerous publications constitute a considerable historiography, they concentrate almost entirely on the years he spent in England, even Houbraken’s account, with little attention paid to Kneller’s formative years.

Kneller was the third son of Zacharias Kniller (1611–75) and Lucia Beuten (d. 1689). Godfrey’s older brother, Jan Zacharias (1642–1702), also became a painter, and his younger brother, Andreas (1649–1724), was a composer and organist. According to his English biographer, Godfrey was “well descended.” His grandfather was “surveyor-general of the mines and inspector of count Mansfeldt’s revenues.” Godfrey’s father had studied at Leipzig University and spent several years at the Swedish court, where he enjoyed the favor of Queen Maria Eleonora (1599–1655), widow of King Gustav II Adolf (1594–1632). After the queen’s death in 1655, Zacharias returned to Lübeck where, “having studied architecture and the mathematics,” he was appointed to the office of “chief-surveyor.”

The description of Kneller’s father found in English sources differs in a number of important respects from an early twentieth-century German account of Godfrey’s life, where it is noted that Zacharias Kniller was a portrait painter. On 24 May 1650, the Lübeck city authorities granted him permission, as a free master, to paint “Contrafaite und andere perspektivische Stücke” (likenesses and other perspectival work). Yet, judging by the work that has survived, he was already a highly popular portraitist among the local elite in the 1640s. In the German biography, after the death of Maria Eleonora, Zacharias was appointed Werkmeister of Saint Catherine’s Church rather than city architect in Lübeck. There, in 1676, a year after he died, his sons Jan Zacharias and Godfrey personally painted an epitaph to their father. It is difficult to establish which version of Zacharias’s life is accurate because most of the dates are missing; it is possible that both are correct. It is striking, however, that none of the English accounts mention that Godfrey’s father was a painter, even though the author of the most detailed biography, Buckeridge, claims to have been informed by Kneller personally. Therefore, it is possible that Kneller somewhat embellished the history of his family after being knighted in 1692.

Zacharias intended for Godfrey to have a military, not an artistic, career. To this end he sent him, “after he was sufficiently instructed in the Latin tongue,” to the Dutch Republic to study mathematics and fortification. It is not known exactly when Kneller left for Leiden, but it was certainly not before 1662, the date of his earliest known drawing, a portrait of Heinrich IV the Pious (1473–1541), Duke of Saxony. We can only guess at Zacharias’s reason for sending Godfrey to a Dutch university instead of a German one, although he was not the only person from Lübeck to move to Leiden at that time—between 1660 and 1663, ten fellow townsmen enrolled as students there.

When it became apparent that Godfrey was drawn more to painting than to the subjects he was studying, his parents sent him to Amsterdam, where, according to Smith, “he made a beginning by the famous Rembrandt’s direction.” This comment corresponds with what Buckeridge wrote, according to whom Kneller was “placed for his better instruction under the care of Rembrandt.” Vertue, however, argues that Kneller “studied under Ferdinand Bol (1616–80) and had some instruction from Rembrandt.” Both of these names are encountered in Houbraken, although in the reverse order. According to him, “he turned … for his education first to Rembrandt, and then to Ferdinand Bol.”

Presuming that Kneller arrived in Leiden in late 1662 or early 1663, his move to Amsterdam would have taken place soon thereafter, probably in 1663. At first glance, an apprenticeship with Rembrandt starting in 1663 is at odds with the accepted view that the Dordrecht painter Arent de Gelder (1645–1727) was Rembrandt’s last pupil, and that De Gelder left the master’s workshop around this time. The real question, however, is whether Kneller studied under Rembrandt at all; comments such as “made a beginning” or “had some instruction” do not really imply years of instruction, although it is possible he had a few lessons from the master. The literature on Rembrandt also expresses some skepticism about an apprenticeship with “the most famous Painter at that time in Holland,” because nothing in Kneller’s early work indicates his influence. On the other hand, Ferdinand Bol’s influence is manifest. Accordingly, Kneller’s training in Amsterdam probably took place largely in the workshop of Bol.

An apprenticeship with Bol also corresponds with other known facts. Bol was approached by Leiden’s town council on 10 August 1663 to paint a chimneypiece for the burgomasters’ chamber, after which date he regularly visited Leiden. Kneller and Bol may well have met there. How long Kneller would have studied under Bol is not known, but he appears to have been active as an independent painter by 1666, when he signed and dated a portrait of the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, Johann Philipp von Schönborn (1605–73). That a young painter should obtain such a prestigious commission so soon after completing his apprenticeship is nothing short of remarkable, and indeed, the identity of the sitter and the authenticity of Kneller’s signature are disputed. Perhaps the portrait should be regarded as an early example of his extraordinary talent for this genre, but it should be noted that securely attributed works of the 1660s are consistently of lesser quality. They are painted entirely in the style of Bol and can be distinguished from the master’s own work only with great difficulty. Kneller also borrowed themes, mainly depictions of scholars in a room, from his teacher, even though Bol had painted his scholars in the early 1650s.

Wishing to develop his skills as a painter, Kneller traveled to Rome in 1672, where according to Buckeridge, he practiced “under the favourable influence of Carlo Marat [sic] and the Chevalier Bernini.” According to Smith, he spent much time in the Vatican, where he “Copyed very much after Raphael.” Houbraken, too, mentions the “overheerlyke Konst” (exquisite art) of Carlo Maratta (1625–1713), the most important painter in Rome in the 1670s. This visit—the only reminder of which is a 1672 dated drawing—was followed by a stay in Venice where he met the Dutch painter Robert Duval (1649–1732).

Upon learning that his father was dying, Kneller returned to Lübeck. On the way he stopped in Nuremberg, where he met Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88). Impressed by Kneller’s work, Sandrart included him in his Teutsche Academie a few years later. Kneller cannot have stayed long in Lübeck, because he was in Hamburg in 1676. Shortly after his arrival, he painted portraits of the family of the art lover Jacob de le Boë, the brother of the Leiden scholar and collector Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius (1614–72). In 1672 Jacob had inherited half of his brother’s famous painting collection, which included work by Gerrit Dou (1613–75) and Frans van Mieris (1635–81). In Hamburg, Kneller associated a great deal with English merchants. He then traveled with one of them to England, thereby, according to Smith, indulging his desire “to see Sir Antony Van Dyck’s Works, being most ambitious of imitating that great Master.” Kneller clearly succeeded in this aim, becoming the most eminent and successful English painter of the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

- Piet Bakker, 2017
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