John Smart (1742-1811)
William was the eldest surviving son of Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) and Princess Mary of Great Britain, the daughter of George II...
This portrait of William I, Elector of Hesse, is an unusual addition to Smart’s oeuvre, as he was rarely granted the opportunity to paint royal subjects. William was the eldest surviving son of Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) and Princess Mary of Great Britain, the daughter of George II. On his father’s death in 1785, he became William IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, when he inherited one of the largest fortunes in Europe and in 1803 he became Elector William I. William married his first cousin, Wilhelmina Caroline of Denmark and Norway (1747-1820)...
William’s large fortune required management and through his collecting of rare coins (an interest he inherited from his father) he met firstly Amschel Moses and then his son Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who he hired as ‘Court Agent’ (’Hoffaktor’) in 1769. The Rothschild family coin business brought many princely patrons and soon expanded into providing financial services, with Mayer Amschel’s appointment to William now seen as the decisive moment in the formation of the Rothschild banking dynasty.
The intelligent management of William’s large fortune included hiding his wealth from Napoleon through the Frankfurt Rothschilds; the money sent to Nathan Mayer in London where it funded the British advance through Portugal and Spain.
In 1806, Napoleon invaded Hesse and William was forced to flee to Denmark with his family. During this time, his money was again entrusted to Mayer Amschel Rothschild and by the time he was restored in 1813, his riches had been lucratively invested in British government securities and bullion. In 1810, Mayer Amschel renamed his firm M A Rothschild und Söhne, establishing a partnership with his four sons in Frankfurt (his son Nathan having already established the business in London and Manchester). The Rothschild’s reputation was consolidated as a financial powerhouse and continued to establish its pre-eminence throughout the rest of the 19th century.
Smart’s portrait of William, painted in 1772, is a somewhat subdued but nevertheless typically honest appraisal of the man. One of the richest men in Europe at the time, the only nod to his status is the golden lion suspended from his sash. 1772 was the year of his mother’s death and William would have been in London to share his sad news with the king, George III, his mother’s nephew. George III’s mother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha had died a month after William’s own, so the two men shared much in grief. It is perhaps testament to William’s personality that he chose the careful John Smart over the bombastic Richard Cosway to record his portrait during his sombre visit to London.
 Mayer Amschel Rothschild was assigned £550,000 to invest by William