Zoomable Image of Portrait of William Heberden the Younger (1767-1845)

Portrait of William Heberden the Younger (1767-1845)

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)

Portrait of William Heberden the Younger (1767-1845)

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)

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Oil on canvas


24 1/8 x 20 1/8 in (61.2 x 51.1 cm)


The sitter; thence by descent

Angelica Kauffmann was one of the most successful female artists of her generation…

This enchanting portrait shows William Heberden the Younger, a leading doctor in the early nineteenth century and one of George III’s physicians during his long years of psychiatric illness. Heberden was a studious and learned child and is presented as such in Kauffmann’s portrait. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had, before he was thirty, not only passed all his medical degrees, but also been elected a fellow of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society, as well as securing the important post of physician-extraordinary to Queen Charlotte.

Heberden’s success with the Queen led to his appointment, in 1809, to the position of physician-in-ordinary to both the king and the queen. However, soon after his appointment Heberden was forced to deal with another occurrence of the King’s illness in 1810, which had been in abeyance since 1804. The illness caused hallucinations, wild outbursts and occasionally violence. During the two previous instances, George III had been ‘treated’ by a repressive regime led by the Revd Francis Willis, a rural parson whose methods owed more to nursery discipline than modern medicine. Willis had the king forcefully restrained and punished when he ‘misbehaved’. Because the disease, now thought to be porphyria, was only intermittent, George III inevitably recovered at first, and so Willis was credited with the cure.

In 1810, therefore, Heberden’s more enlightened methods were ignored in favour of those of Willis’s two sons (Willis died in 1807), John and Richard. Heberden regularly lobbied for a different treatment, describing the Willis regime as one of “unedifying confinement and seclusion”, and instead calling for a treatment that would “soothe, cherish and comfort a mind worn by disease and disappointment”. Heberden’s advice was ignored, and from that point the king effectively spent the remaining ten years of his reign in a permanent state of delusion, made worse by blindness. The Willises allowed the king few visitors and starved of human contact and conversation, he lived in an imaginary world of his own making, his one enjoyment of playing on Handel’s harpsichord gradually diminished by deafness. Heberden described him as “living in another world and has lost almost all interest in the concerns of this”.

Angelica Kauffmann was one of the most successful female artists of her generation, along with contemporaries such as Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marguérite Gérard and Marie-Victoire Lemoine. Despite the fact that they faced the usual inane prejudices one might expect – Kauffman, for example, was refused access to nude, life-classes while training in Rome – such artists continued a long European tradition of female painters, following on from the likes of Sofonisba and Lavinia Fontana. Kauffman was born in Switzerland, the daughter of a minor artist Joseph Kauffmann. She had no formal artistic training when young but her prodigious talent ensured that she was able to practice in Rome from 1763. In 1766, thanks to her success amongst English ‘Grand Tourers’ such as the actor David Garrick, she was urged to continue her career in England, where the demand for good portraitists was always high. After her arrival, the whole of London went “Angelicamad”, as one contemporary wrote. Kauffman’s graceful, elegant style accorded well with the prevailing rococo taste in England and there was much demand for the delicate technique seen in the present portrait, especially amongst female sitters. She became a favourite of Joshua Reynolds and gossip suggested that for the advances of one artist she had forsaken another – Nathaniel Dance was sorely disappointed in her refusal of his hand in marriage. In any case, Kauffman’s easy manner and skill led to much society patronage, from royalty downwards, and she became a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. Her depictions of classical legends also proved highly popular.

After a disastrously brief marriage to an imposter with the improbable name of Count Von Horn, Kauffman left England for Rome once more in 1781. There, her studio became a focal point of the city, and she became friends with Goethe, Canova and Sir William Hamilton, while her patrons included royalty from almost all Europe, most notably Catherine the Great of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria.

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