Mary Beale was a powerhouse. The first English female artist to support her husband and family from her work, Beale’s talent in portraiture was only matched by her business savvy.
Mary started painting alongside her father, who’s membership in the Painter-Stainers’ Company introduced her to the renowned court painter Peter Lely and many of his contemporaries. At 18, Mary married Charles Beale, a color-mixer. Charles stretched many of her canvases, and mixed pigments for work. Later, Charles meticulously recorded Mary’s artistic process, clientele and technique, a rare window into the world of a brilliant woman flourishing in a nearly exclusively male field.
Mary’s career started slowly, painting portraits for her friends and neighbors in Fleet Street. But in 1665, when she was 32, Charles lost his job at the Patent Office and Mary went pro. Since her youth, Mary had cultivated a respected standing among London’s intellectual elite, and when she stepped into full-time portrait painting, these artists, scientists, clergy and noblesse became her eager clientele. Mary painted the noted physician Thomas Sydenham, author of the foundational medical text Observationes Medicae, the politician William Pierrepont, John Lake, Bishop of Chichester, John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale. Mary Beale’s catalog became a who’s who of London’s most influential—and she was prolific. In 1677 alone Mary took 83 commissions, and built a large studio with many students, including developing women artists like Keaty Trioche and Sarah Curtis.
As the courtly painting style declined in the 1680s Mary’s work grew less popular, but her impact, and sharp-eyed portraits remain.
Reed Enger, "Mary Beale, Mary brings home the bacon," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 23, 2016; last modified November 06, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/mary-beale/.