Rouen c.1558/65 - London 1617


The son of a Huguenot goldsmith from northern France, Isaac Oliver settled as a child with his family in London in 1568, escaping the French Wars of Religion. His early artistic training was with the English goldsmith and miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, and he is also said to have been trained in oil painting by the Italian artist Federico Zuccaro, presumably during his brief stay in England between 1574 and 1575. (However, although several paintings by Oliver are recorded, none appear to have survived.) Oliver developed a particular reputation as a limner or miniaturist, and his first known dated work is a portrait miniature of 1587. His portrait miniatures, strongly influenced by those of his teacher Hilliard, soon began to rival those of the latter in popularity. In 1596 Oliver visited Venice and is also likely to have travelled to the Low Countries. In the early years of the 17th century he worked at the court of James I, King of England, and in 1604 was appointed ‘painter for the Art of Lymning’ to both Anne of Denmark, wife of the King, and Henry, Prince of Wales. Two years later he became a naturalised Englishman. Particularly influenced by Flemish and Italian (especially Venetian) art, Oliver introduced a sophisticated Mannerist sensibility, gained from his travels abroad, into English art of the period. This is especially noticeable in the handful of highly finished cabinet miniatures of Biblical subjects by the artist to have survived. The 18th century antiquarian, engraver and writer George Vertue noted of Isaac Oliver that he often carried a small sketchbook around with him. A gifted draughtsman, he produced drawings of religious, allegorical and classical subjects – mainly in pen and ink, but also occasionally in chalk or gouache - which often display a pronounced Italo-Flemish character. As Richard Stephens has noted, ‘Oliver has been called ‘the first British draughtsman’ for he is the first artist whom we can see using drawing to develop his ideas rather than merely creating an outline to follow...Although he chiefly worked as a portrait miniaturist, Isaac Oliver used chalk and pen drawings to think through complex religious scenes, which were intended to be executed finally as cabinet miniatures…[he was] an artist well-versed in continental art: here, for the first time, a highly capable London artist was engaging closely with contemporary European trends – notably northern mannerism – to produce complex mythological and religious compositions.’ The Oliver scholar Jill Finsten concurs, commenting of the artist’s small corpus of drawings that ‘On the most basic level they are extraordinary simply because, with the exception of Holbein’s portrait drawings (arguably a whole separate genre), this is the earliest body of drawings to appear in the history of English art. Oliver thus has claim to being considered the first English painter who was equally a serious draughtsman.’ Only relatively few drawings by Isaac Oliver are known today, some of which are signed, although none are dated. A number of his drawings, including the present sheet, display the influence of the Italian Mannerist artist Parmigianino, whose work he is likely have seen on his visit to Venice in 1596, and whose paintings he is known to have copied. Indeed, Oliver may be regarded as one of the first artists working in Britain to have had a close awareness and appreciation of Continental models, not only from his travels but also in the form of paintings and prints by Italian, French and Netherlandish artists. His drawings are, nevertheless, always original compositions and not copies, unlike much of the work of his son and pupil Peter Oliver, who was likewise a miniaturist and draughtsman.