Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet (born Gottfried Kniller; 8 August 1646 – 19 October 1723) was the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was court painter to English and British monarchs from Charles II to George I. His major works include The Chinese Convert (1687); a series of four portraits of Isaac Newton painted at various junctures of the latter’s life; a series of ten reigning European monarchs, including King Louis XIV of France; 48 “Kit-cat portraits” of members of the Kit-Cat Club; and ten “beauties” of the court of William III, to match a similar series of ten beauties of the court of Charles II painted by his predecessor as court painter, Sir Peter Lely.
Kneller was born Gottfried Kniller in the Free City of Lübeck, the son of Zacharias Kniller, a portrait painter. Kneller studied in Leiden, but became a pupil of Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He then traveled with his brother John Zacharias, who was an ornamental painter, to Rome and Venice in the early 1670s, painting historical subjects and portraits in the studio of Carlo Maratta, and later moved to Hamburg. They came to England in 1676, and won the patronage of the Duke of Monmouth. He was introduced to, and painted a portrait of, Charles II. In England, Kneller concentrated almost entirely on portraiture. He founded a studio which churned out portraits on an almost industrial scale, relying on a brief sketch of the face with details added to a formulaic model, aided by the fashion for gentlemen to wear full wigs. His portraits set a pattern that was followed until William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds.
Nevertheless, he established himself as a leading portrait artist in England. When Sir Peter Lely died in 1680, Kneller was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II. Created a baronet by King George I on 1715, he was also head of the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing 1711-1716 in London, which counted such artists as Thomas Gibson amongst its founding directors. His paintings were praised by Whig luminaries such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Alexander Pope.
Kneller died of fever in 1723 at Great Queen Street and his remains were interred at Twickenham. He had been a churchwarden at St Mary’s, Twickenham when the 14th-century nave collapsed in 1713 and was active in the plans for the church’s reconstruction by John James.