The Cholmondeley Ladies is an English oil painting dated to the early 17th century around 1600-10 and is shrouded in mystery
First of all the picture has not been attributed to an artist; secondly, the sitters’ identities have not been certainly established although they have been speculated; and lastly the exact date of the picture has not been found.
The Cholmondeley Ladies features two women in aristocratic formal dress for the time, i.e. the late Elizabethan (until 1603) or the early Jacobean (after 1603) in England, sit upright on a double bed backed by white pillows. This arrangement is reminiscent of tomb sculpture rather than the conventions of portraiture. The women each hold an infant swaddled in a scarlet and gold-fringed christening robes. The women as well as the babies bear a striking similarity that has led some to conjecture that we see two sisters. Indeed a presumed sighting of this picture in the 19th century maintains that this double portrait is of two women born on the same day and who got married on the same day. Certainly the artist did endeavour in this work to heighten the similarities of the two ladies; in dress, the disposition of their bodies and in physical appearance.
The pose of the ladies, including the placement of their hands around the infants that they cradle are seemingly identical. In keeping with this, the swaddling clothes are identical, just as the ladies’ facial features, costume and dressing of the hair are similar.
However, a closer inspection of The Cholmondeley Ladies we can see that there are subtle differences between the sitters. In terms of eye colour, the lady on the left has blue eyes while the other has brown eyes. Their bodices display slightly different designs, with the lady on the right wearing an abstracted swirling design; the lady on the left wears a more floral pattern. And most interestingly, the ladies evidence varied expressions and extents of engagement with the viewer. For instance, the lady on the left seems to lean her head slightly more towards the viewer but the lady on the right seems to lift her head slightly back away. These differences are extremely subtle as convention at the time for aristocratic portraits was to emphasise status rather than to provide any psychological insight.
Given that the arrangement of the picture’s characters does remind one of tomb sculpture, The Cholmondeley Ladies could be read as an allegory or metaphor for the life cycle of birth and death.
The Cholmondeley Ladies is in The Tate Gallery in London, England. It was donated to the museum in 1955 by an anonymous donor.