Portrait of a Gentleman c.1805
Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA 1769-1830
“Lawrence began his portrait practice at the age of just ten, when, for a guinea a go, guests at his father’s inn near Bath could be drawn by a celebrated local prodigy, hailed as a Mozart of art.”
Oil on Canvas
24 x 20 inches; 61 x 50.8 cm
Marguerite Singer Smith, Connecticut, USA
Thomas Lawrence is known today as the last of the great English portraitists. He was a child prodigy who not only became the leading English artist of his age, but also one of the most renowned in Europe. His depiction of the Regency generation, in all its gauche excessiveness, remains a dazzling highlight of English art compared to the sober veneration of his Victorian followers. His death in 1830, the same year as that of George IV, coincided with society’s recoil from the ‘vulgarity’ of the late Georgian era, and its transformation, with hallowed austerity, into the earnest gloom of Victorians. And so the patrons of Lawrence’s successors began to demand portraits befitting the builders of a new empire; out went the swirling dramatism of Lawrence, and in came uprightness, black coats, and beards.
Although Lawrence’s reputation suffered in the nineteenth century, his work continues to be admired, and for two principle reasons. The first is his spectacular ability to capture likeness. Walter Scott’s opinion that “next to seeing the great men themselves, nothing can equal beholding them on the canvas of Lawrence…” gives an idea of his reputation as the leading purveyor of likenesses in Europe. The second is his bold, exuberant technique, born out of a supreme confidence in handling oil paint. Lawrence was an instinctive painter, and thus able to capture sudden moments of life and sensitivity in his sitters. It was through this ‘painterly’ approach that Lawrence, following on from earlier eighteenth century English artists such as Reynolds and Romney, came to enjoy the periodic domination of his successors in England, such as Francis Grant, and even, if we include John Singer Sargent, in America.
Lawrence began his portrait practice at the age of just ten, when, for a guinea a go, guests at his father’s inn near Bath could be drawn by a celebrated local prodigy, hailed as a Mozart of art. Sitters included the young William Pitt, drawn in profile in the early 1780s [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd]. Although Lawrence’s first serious portrait commissions were done in pastel, it was not long before he felt able to advance onto oils, a remarkable feat given that he never really bothered with any formal artistic training.
An early success was the well-known portrait of Elizabeth Farren, a noted beauty and mistress of the Earl of Derby [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. Painted in 1790, when Lawrence was just twenty, it astonished viewers at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition as a work of daring coquettishness, full of movement and vibrancy, and approached with a freshness only possible with innate talent. Another early work, again from 1790, was his first royal commission, a full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte [National Gallery, London]. Despite his own frank admission that Charlotte resembled ‘an old grey parrot’, the work was widely acclaimed. Reynolds, then President of the Academy, reportedly declared, ‘In you, sir, the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve.’ Lawrence eventually went on to become President of the Royal Academy himself, in 1820.
This dramatic portrait of a gentleman is probably an unfinished work, and may have been cut down from a larger canvas. It dates from the mid 1800s, just as Lawrence was confirming his domination of the artistic scene in London, and is painted with Lawrence’s habitual assurance. The neck-tie, for example, is effectively one single continuous brushstroke, while the jacket and background have been quickly painted with broad, robust brushwork. The composition is brought sharply into focus in the face, where the sitter’s features and hair are portrayed with realism and depth. Small flashes of colour and deft highlights, such as the hint of yellow around the eyes and red in the cheeks, add detail amidst the rapidity.