James (Giuseppe) Macpherson (b.1726-c.1779)
Although he spent much of his working life as a copyist, his portraits from life, such as the one represented here, show that he was also a sensitive portraitist.
This fine enamel is one of a handful of surviving enamel portraits by James – or Giuseppe – Macpherson. His father had been introduced to the Court of Grand Duke Cosimo III (1642-1743) by Alexander, second Duke of Gordon (1678-1728). Donald Macpherson, the artist’s father, was in the retinue of the Duke as a running footman or volante, who settled in Florence and his son, James, was born there in 1726.
As is quite clear from the style of this enamel, James was apprenticed to the great oil portraitist, Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), in Rome. By the early 1740s, he was establishing himself as a miniature painter and enamellist. Macpherson also spent some time in London. A few years prior to the date of this enamel, in 1754, Giuseppe Baretti wrote of his portrait which he had ‘had done in enamel by a young gentleman called Macpherson, a Florentine by birth but of Scottish extraction, who was in Italy three or four years ago’. Macpherson seems to have travelled quite widely, working in the courts of Milan, Paris and probably in Germany. He was employed as a copyist and portraitist, his largest commission coming from Lord Cowper, the Anglo-Florentine, for whom he copied in miniature all the artist’s self-portraits in the Grand Duke’s gallery. He could be described as the prototype for the professional copyists of the 19th century, particularly the most famous copyist in enamel, Henry Bone.
In May 1778, Macpherson presented his own self-portrait to the gallery, painted on vellum, to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, for which he was awarded a gold medal. A replica, on canvas, of this portrait was in the collection of the Duke of Wellington.
Sadly, Macpherson’s daughter did not benefit for long from her father’s success. When Pryse Lockhart Gordon (1762-1845) visited Florence in 1799, he met a poverty-stricken girl. He recalls her story; "My father was a painter in enamel of some eminence, and having been patronised by the late Grand Duke, was enabled to leave me at his death, twenty years ago, a respectable independence, being his only child. But unhappily I contracted an imprudent marriage with a Siennese, who very soon dissipated all our means, leaving me a few years ago almost totally destitute, and indeed I should not have the means of existence, but for the kindness of the Grand Duke, who allows me a rente viagere of one hundred crowns, this is all I have to depend on, except some small earnings I gain by embroidery. I have hitherto preserved a few of my father's enamels, a portfolio of his drawings, and some pictures; but necessity compels me to dispose of them. I have brought a couple of the former with me for your inspection, and cannot doubt that you, as a connoisseur, will acknowledge their merit." She produced two cases from her sac, containing two highly-finished and well-executed enamels, one a copy of the Madonna Della Seggiola, and the other of the Fornarina of Raphael. These two miniatures Pryse Gordon purchased for twenty sequins and promised to look later at her drawings. "A few months after this transaction", he says, "I went to Rome and mentioned it to my uncle, Mr. Morrison. He had a perfect recollection of the painter whom he had often seen during his frequent visits to Florence, and said that he was esteemed an excellent artist in enamel, and that his copies from the old masters were highly valued. This account induced me, on my return to Florence, to fulfil my promise of examining the widow's collection of drawings, many of which were very clever, being the copies he had made for his enamels, and I purchased the whole at a price which fully satisfied the lady, and made her, she said, rich, although the sum did not exceed fifty crowns."
Macpherson was clearly an extremely talented artist and the scarcity of his works on the market is probably due to the fact that they are largely in aristocratic collections or public institutions. Although he spent much of his working life as a copyist, his portraits from life, such as the one represented here, show that he was also a sensitive portraitist.