Mention William Dobson (1611–46) outside of Great Britain and you’re likely to be met with a polite stare. Adding that he was an acclaimed painter of the Royalist aristocracy of seventeenth-century England doesn’t help. For most of us, our conception of high life in that time and place is tightly bound up with Anthony van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I and his court, their decorative children, and the occasional long-nosed, supercilious dog. We remember stylish women with complicated hairstyles and men with curls and tidy beards, everyone (except the dogs) swathed in gleaming silk and richly worked lace, festooned with bows, embroidery, and flounces. Other images come to mind, after a while—the no-nonsense, black-clad Puritans who abandoned England for the New World, for example—but van Dyck’s bravura renditions of slim, elegant,...


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