John Vanderbank (1694-1739)
This attractive portrait is exemplar of Vanderbank’s distinctive colouring...
John Vanderbank was born in London into a Huguenot family at the close of the seventeenth century. The son of John Vanderbank Senior, the well-known royal tapestry weaver, Vanderbank studied painting first with his father and then with the portrait painter Jonathan Richardson. He was one of Godfrey Kneller's first pupils at the Academy of Painting from 1711, and in 1720, when Kneller’s academy began to decline, started his own Academy of painting in or near St. Martin's Lane with Louis Chéron. This new academy was short-lived, but it had a significant impact on English art. During the four years of its existence, it held life drawing classes using both male and female models, its alumni including William Hogarth, Joseph Highmore, John Ellys and James Seymour.
The academy closed in 1724 when Vanderbank fled England for France to escape a further stint in the debtor’s prison. His lifestyle was famously excessive, a fact remarked upon by George Vertue, who noted he ‘livd very extravagantly. keeping. a chariot horses a mistres drinking & country house a purpose for her’. During 1724–9 Vanderbank was repeatedly in debt and confined within Fleet prison, where wealthier prisoners lived in relative luxury.
Fortuitously for Vanderbank, he was often assisted financially by friends and patrons, including Lord Carteret who lived in Hollis Street near Cavendish Square. Carteret was a central figure in the circle of Neoclassical aestheticians surrounding the influential Lord Burlington. He allowed Vanderbank to live for free and had some influence on the direction of his work.
By the time this portrait was painted in 1735, Vanderbank had established a fashionable portraiture practice. His technique is distinct among his fellow portraitists and follows in the traditions of grand portraiture that had become part of Van Dyck's legacy to British painting. His debt to Van Dyck is clear here in the modelling and position of the sitter’s hands, and even in the classical vase shown in the background (a device also used by his teacher Kneller).
Vanderbank’s distinctive colouring is also seen in this attractive portrait, the bold pigmentation, particularly in the flesh, where pink tones are painted thinly over the cooler greys of the ground layer suggests glowing skin. Here Vanderbank looks to the technique of colori cangianti, derived via Rubens from the artists of the seicento. Equally distinctive in Vanderbank’s work is the means by which mid-tones are represented on the canvas by unpainted areas of grey-green primer, as seen in many areas around the head in this example, and the placing of pure red pigments for the highlights.
Vanderbank’s greatest strength as a portraitist lay in his draughtsmanship, the foundations for which must have been laid by his father. Numerous portrait commissions were engraved and he provided drawings of arresting originality for a Spanish edition of Don Quixote. Vertue insinuates that he may have been more commercially successful as a portraitist had he applied himself more, but in his short career his impact on British art was unparalleled by many of his contemporaries.
 Vertue, Note books, 3.98
 Vanderbank studiously copied works by both Rubens and Van Dyck
 This lavish four-volume quarto edition was eventually published in 1738 by publishers J. and R. Tonson
 Note books, 5.98 (‘only intemperance prevented him from being the greatest portraitist of his generation’)