Wearing gold armour and jewelled sandals with lion-mask tops, James, Duke of York is depicted in the ostentatious tradition of the swagger portrait.
His flamboyant Roman costume represents Mars, the Roman god of war, and is also an opulent statement of James' military skills. James was Lord High Admiral for his elder brother, Charles II, from 1660 until 1673, when he was excluded from office as a Catholic under the Test Act of 1673.
James' position as Lord High Admiral is shown by a fleet in the background, with the Duke's flagship at anchor. The Duke was in personal command of the fleet at the victory over the Dutch off Lowestoft in 1665 and again at the Battle of Solebay in 1672, which this portrait may commemorate. A young page traditionally thought to be the young John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, is shown holding a helmet and dressed in a similar manner to the Duke.
Solebay was the last occasion in which a member of the British royal family personally commanded a fleet in action. James was an experienced and brave soldier by land and sea, and extremely interested and diligent in the administration of the Navy. He encouraged Samuel Pepys as Secretary of the Navy Board and later of the Admiralty, becoming his most important patron (other than Charles II himself) after the death of Pepys's cousin, the Earl of Sandwich, at Solebay in 1672.
He was less adept when he succeeded Charles as King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1685. His limited political judgement soon gave way to his hard-line Catholic sympathies and ruthless suppression of dissent. In 1688 he was overthrown in the very largely non-violent 'Glorious Revolution' which replaced him with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange (as William III and Mary II).
The artist, Gascar, came to England in about 1672 and painted portraits with flamboyant French symbolism for the Catholic clique in the Stuart court. He worked for Charles II's mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and was also a French spy.