Mary Beale was an English portrait painter. She became one of the most important portrait painters of 17th-century England, and has been described as the first professional female English painter.
Mary Beale (née Cradock; 26 March 1633 – 1699) was one of the most successful professional female Baroque era portrait painters of the late 17th century due to her perseverance of her business. Praised by Richard Gibson and court painter Peter Lely, she is considered as successful as Joan Carlile. Joan Carlile was also an English portrait painter who was one of the first women to practice painting professionally Mary Beale managed to be the financial provider for her family through her professional portrait business. Her book Observations, although it was never officially published, was one of the first instructional books ever written by a woman and boldly announced her authority on painting. Mary Beale stood apart from other women due to her outspokenness and successful business that allowed her to be the breadwinner of the family.
The most common way to learn how to paint at the time was to copy great works and masterpieces that were accessible. Mary Beale preferred to paint in oil and water colours. Whenever she did a drawing, she would draw in crayon. Peter Lely, who succeeded Anthony van Dyck as the court painter, took a great interest in Mary’s progress as an artist, especially since she would practice painting by imitating some of his work. Mary Beale started working by painting favours for people she knew in exchange for small gifts or favors. Charles Beale kept close record of everything Mary did as an artist. He would take notes on how she painted, what business transactions took place, who came to visit, and what praise she would receive. Charles wrote thirty notebooks worth of observations over the years, calling Mary “my dearest heart”. She became a semi-professional portrait painter in the 1650s and 1660s, working from her home, first in Covent Garden and later in Fleet Street.
In 1663, Mary Beale published Observations. It is a non-published piece of instructional writing that starts by critiquing how to paint apricots. Observations also shows a good partnership and collaboration effort between Mary and Charles. It boldly declared Mary Beale as an artist to remember. Mary Beale also wrote a manuscript called Discourse on Friendship in 1666 and four poems in 1667.
The key for a female to become a successful professional painter was to earn a good reputation. It could be easy to misconstrue strangers entering a woman’s home for a business transaction as something that would portray the woman in an impure light. Once Mary did start painting for money in the 1670s, she carefully picked who she would paint and used the praise of her circle of friends to build a good reputation as a painter. Some of these people included Queen Henrietta Maria and John Tillotson, a clergyman from St James’ Church, a close friend of Mary Beale who eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury. It may be due to Mary’s father, John, who was a rector, or her close connection to Tillotson that kept the clergymen of St James’ as consistent customers. Mary’s connection to Tillotson as well as her strong Puritan marriage to Charles worked in her favour in building up her good reputation.[ Mary Beale typically charged five pounds for a painting of a head and ten pounds for half of a body for oil paintings. She made about two hundred pounds a year and gave ten percent of her earnings to charity. This income was enough to support her family, and she did so. Needless to say, it is truly remarkable that Mary Beale was responsible for being the breadwinner of the family.
In 1681, Mary Beale took on two students, Keaty Trioche and Mr. More, who worked with her in the studio. In 1691, Sarah Curtis from Yorkshire became another student of Mary’s. Sarah had similar behaviours and dispositions as Mary. Mary Beale died on 8 October 1699. Her death was mistaken for the death of Mary Beadle, whose recorded death is on 28 December 1697. Not much is known about her death besides that she died in a house on Pall Mall and was buried under the communion table of St James’ Church.