Progression of Art
Le Roi á la Chasse (Charles I at the Hunt)
This portrait depicts Charles I as he turns toward the viewer in a relaxed but regal stance. Behind him two male attendants stand beside his horse: one tending to the welfare of the animal; the other looking attentively into the distant sky. Rather than a formal portrait, the King is portrayed at ease in van Dyck's leisurely and informal treatment. As art critic Richard Dorment noted, "when you see his vividly naturalistic portraits next to the stiff and hieratic work of his English predecessors, it is Van Dyck's theatricality that is so striking". The gloves he holds in his left hand, his walking stick evoking a scepter, and a Latin phrase, reading "Charles I, King of Great Britain" inscribed on a rock in the right foreground, emphasize his status as sovereign. Here Charles plays the part of the ideal courtier, the "perfect gentleman" as he was described in Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1528), a treatise that influenced court life throughout Europe for almost two centuries.
The King's clothing - specifically his wide-brimmed hat and silvery doublet shimmering with light - is luxurious, while the outdoor setting conveys the sense of oneness with nature. Van Dyck's portraits were seen as precursors for the Grand Manner style, and his advocacy for outdoor settings allowed for intimate portraits that conveyed the innate virtues of the sitter. As art critic Keith Thomas, noted "nearly all the great 18th-century portraitists, from Pompeo Batoni and Allan Ramsay to Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, copied Van Dyck's costumes, poses and compositions".
Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers
This life-size double portrait depicts Lord Sydney in dark green, and, behind him, Colonel John Acland who steps forward with his bow fully drawn. Framed by forest foliage that opens out onto a meadow, and with the spoils of their hunt laying on the forest floor behind them, the two men are presented to the viewer as heroic aristocratic medieval hunters.
Though at the time shotguns were generally used for hunting, archery had become fashionable amongst the aristocracy and the figure of the young and virile archer had become a fashionable motif in art. As art historian Ruth Kenny observed, "The painting celebrates the men's friendship by linking it to an imaginary chivalric past, when young lords pursued 'manly' activities together against a backdrop of ancient forest. The two subjects run and take aim in perfect rhythmic harmony; at one with each other and joint masters over nature". Yet Reynolds invented these aristocratic costumes to evoke the chivalric past, as the art critic Richard Dorment noted, "His compulsion always to move in new directions is linked to his conviction that portraiture could attain the prestige associated with history painting only through the exercise of the painter's imagination [...] At the root of all this lay his lifelong ambition to establish a school of British painting of international importance".
In 1768 Reynolds became the first president of the newly formed Royal Academy of Arts and the following year was knighted by King George III. Painted in the same year that he began presenting his Discourses on Art to the Academy, and this painting was intended to make a personal statement whereby, as Ruth Kenny noted, Reynolds "demonstrated his desire to elevate portraiture to the level of high art, alongside the genre of history painting". He exhibited this painting in the Royal Academy's 1770 exhibition where it met with great acclaim.
Oil paint on canvas - Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom
The Skater (Portrait of William Grant)
This life-size work depicts William Grant, arms folded, his head slightly turned and lowered beneath a broad brimmed hat, as he skates gracefully in the general direction of the viewer. His clothing, dark but illuminated by the highlights of the white cravat, the gray lapel and silver buckles on his shoes, confirm Grant's stylish elegance. His full-skirted coat, meanwhile, flares out slightly giving a palpable sense of movement as he glides across the picture frame from right to left. The portrait, with the majesty of nature captured in the receding trees and low horizon, epitomizes the Grand Manner style and demonstrates its influence upon the first generation of American artists.
In 1775, and following the example of other American artists such as John Singleton Copley, Stuart travelled to England where he studied with Benjamin West for six years (even exhibiting a portrait of his mentor at the Royal Academy in 1781). The Skater was Stuart's first full-scale portrait. An aristocratic Scotsman, and excellent ice skater, Grant commissioned the artist, but, on the day he was due to sit for his portrait, Stuart recalled how Grant had said "on account of the excessive coldness of the weather [...] the day was better suited for skating than sitting for one's portrait". Accordingly, the two men went skating in London's Hyde Park, and Stuart painted the portrait quickly, and from memory. Exhibited at the 1782 Royal Academy exhibition, the work was met with such acclaim that Stuart said he had been "suddenly lifted into fame by a single picture". Patrons flocked to him for portraits, and his reputation began to rival that of both Gainsborough and West.
After eighteen years in Britain and Ireland, Stuart, by now in debt and hounded by creditors, returned to the United States where he established a studio in Philadelphia. He became reborn as a leading portrait artist, known particularly for his many portraits of George Washington, the first president of the United States. His work influenced other American artists, including Thomas Sully, John Vanderlyn, Washington Allston, and, the "painter of the Revolution", John Trumbull.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Mr and Mrs William Hallett ("The Morning Walk")
This double portrait portrays William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen, arm in arm and accompanied by a white Pomeranian, on a morning walk through the countryside, just prior to their marriage. Revealing van Dyck's influence, Gainsborough used light and fluid brushstrokes to capture the early light shimmering in the couples' resplendent finery; the soft edges of Elizabeth's dress, its lace sleeves and bodice echoed in the soft rolling foliage. Viewers of the era took the work as a visual metaphor of marital happiness, though, implicitly, the painting also conveys the confident virtue of the British character, the world as its garden. Additionally, the dog functions as a symbol of fidelity, and also incorporates a uniquely British association. Queen Charlotte had first brought a pair of Pomeranians (then larger than the modern breed) to England in 1767 and the Pomeranian became firmly associated with the royal family. As art critic Holland Cotter noted, Gainsborough's Grand Manner portraits, "helped invent the image in art of the new social and intellectual English elite".
Gainsborough was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy and, as a portraitist, his arch rival was Joshua Reynolds. In the 1770s he began to promote landscape settings in many of his portraits, bringing a more informal and poetic approach (as seen here) to the more formal style of marriage portraiture. Van Dyck also influenced Gainsborough's use of landscape settings, for which he would develop a marked preference: "I am sick of portraits and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam [stringed instrument] and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips (sic) and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness & ease". Yet, many of his idealized "Arcadia" landscapes were painted from imagination, as he arranged stones and pieces of plants, even sometimes vegetables, on a table in his studio to use in modeling. As art historian Michael Rosenthal wrote, he was "one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time". Though a highly accomplished portraitist, Gainsborough is credited as the founder of the British landscape school and his works influenced John Constable, who once said "On looking at [Gainsborough's landscapes] we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them".
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London, United Kingdom
Portrait of Elizabeth Farren
This portrait depicts Elizabeth Farren, an Irish actress who had become famous after her 1777 debut in Oliver Goldsmith's play She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Acting primarily in comedies of manners, she performed at the celebrated Theatre Royal in London, and Lawrence's portrait captures her at the height of her fame. Dressed in shimmering white satin, adorned with a fur collar and border, and carrying a fur stole, she turns to face the viewer as if caught by surprise on a walk through the countryside. As art critic Richard Holmes described it, "Her seductive figure is offset by a provocative display of textures: muslin, fur, satin and silk, and above all perhaps her limp, leather chamois gloves. Each is rendered with sharp, voluptuous appreciation". The open vista behind her, with its dark blue and gathering skies, enhances what Holmes calls the work's "sense of Romantic style and flamboyance".
Exhibited in 1790 at the Royal Academy, the portrait established Lawrence's role as successor to Joshua Reynolds, though the exhibition was not without a little controversy; Farren having been offended by the title Portrait of an Actress rather than Portrait of a Lady, and also the sense that Lawrence had over-stressed her slenderness. Nevertheless, the Regency era was known for its flamboyance and theatricality and the Grand Manner portrait could play a role in enhancing one's status. Indeed, in 1797 Farren married the earl of Derby and retired from the theatre, and some attributed the notable match to Lawrence's seductive and compelling portrait.
Coming of age in the Romantic era, Lawrence was a child prodigy, and his father, a tavern-keeper, encouraged his art, taking him to London where he launched his career when he was just 17. His work immediately won the support of Reynolds and the patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire. At the age of 25, he was elected to the Royal Academy. As Holmes wrote, "Lawrence was painting his own generation, and effectively bringing it on to the stage of history", with an approach that was "deliberately theatrical, dressy and provocative". His reputation declined in the Victorian era, as the novelist Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1847) described his portraits as "tawdry". Holmes notes that in the modern era, "It became a witticism to say his only successor was the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton". Yet, while Victorian England turned away from his portraits, the French, acknowledging his influence, awarding him the Légion d'honneur in the 1820s. The French novelist Stendhal even declared that "Mr. Lawrence's name is immortal". The artist's work has received renewed contemporary interest with the 2011 National Portrait Gallery's exhibition Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance.
Oil paint on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
This portrait shows George Washington, commander of the American Revolutionary Army and the first president of the United States, as he stands, wearing a black velvet suit. His left hand holds a sword, and his right hand extends in an oratory gesture that evokes classical depictions of the Roman emperors. His resolute, somewhat tight-jawed, expression conveys a sense of somber gravitas. Behind him two Doric columns, partially wrapped in red drapes, evoke a classical architectural setting, opening on one side to an open and cloudy sky and on the far right to a rainbow, symbolizing the revolution followed by peace. A chair on the right is topped with a medallion colored like the American flag, while on the table to the left are several books, including the Federalist and Journal of Congress, evoking the Constitutional Convention and the founding of the new country. Every detail is symbolic, as the table's leg resembles both the mace used in the House of Representatives and a fasces, a Roman symbol of power, while two reclining silver dogs on the silver quill holder's base represent loyalty.
Born in America, Stuart moved to London in 1775 and eventually studied with Benjamin West and achieved great success as a portraitist. He returned to the United States in 1793 where he hoped to paint Washington and other notables in the Grand Manner style. The former British Prime Minister William Petty, the Marquis of Lansdowne, who had overseen the peace agreement that ended the war, commissioned the portrait, and Stuart was able to obtain a single sitting with the president. The portrait is thought to depict a moment following Washington's 1795 address to Congress where he called for unity following the fierce debate over the Jay Treaty, meant to resolve remaining issues between Great Britain and the United States following the war.
Stuart's portrayals of Washington, widely reproduced, have become an integral part of American history, though artistic appreciation of his work has lagged in the modern era. As historian James Thomas Flexner noted, "Stuart sought a public image - what the individual showed to the world [...] yet if we study a picture carefully, we discover that Stuart's revelation of character is profound. Stuart told a pupil that he preferred Vandyke [sic] to Reynolds because Vandyke was true to nature. 'If a sitter had false eyes, they were put down as false. Reynolds would not. He delighted too much in imaginary beauty'".
Oil on canvas - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.
Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)
This full-scale portrait depicts Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American socialite who was married to the Parisian banker Pierre Gautreau. Dressed in black satin décolleté, she creates a striking and sensual pose, as the dark warm brown background emphasizes her skin's alabaster tone, enhanced by the application of lavender powder. Her face turns to her left, while her body faces the viewer, her right hand grips the edge of a small table, while her left hand holds a closed black fan. The pose emphasizes her neckline and shoulders - what Sargent called her "élancée figure" - while also alluding to Francesco Salviati's classical Roman fresco cycle, Bathsheba goes to David (1552).
Other subtly-deployed classical allusions include the sirens of Greek myth carved into the table's legs and Gautreau's crescent tiara accessory which symbolized Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt. These motifs evoke the past but also allude the subject's character since Gautreau was both celebrated for her beauty and rumored to have had a number of love affairs. A number of artists in Paris sought to paint Gautreau's portrait, though she had refused all requests before Sargent. He envisioned exhibiting the work in the Paris Salon and thought it would attract commissions from new patrons while Gautreau hoped that a Grand Manner portrait, and one painted by a leading master, would enhance her social standing.
Originally, the jeweled strap of her dress had partially fallen down her right shoulder, and, when the work was exhibited as Portrait de Madame XXX at the 1884 Salon, a scandal ensued, causing Gautreau humiliation. The effect on Sargent, meanwhile, was described by art critic Jonathan Jones who wrote, "Displayed in the huge jury-selected exhibition [...] it horrified Parisians so much that the ignominy drove Sargent across the Channel to take refuge in Britain. Of course, it was the making of him. He always kept Madame X in his studio. Its whiff of naughtiness generated demand for his portraits with a fashionable British and American public".
Echoing the Grand Manner, but bringing it into the modern era with its Impressionistic touch and its sharp portrayal of the subject, the work was called "a monument to American art" by the art critic Jonathan Jones. Though Sargent did not exhibit it again for another twenty years, he came to regard it as his best work. The work's implicit modernism also seemed to encompass an awareness of the new social age. As art historian Stephanie L. Herdrich wrote, "Perhaps what astounded viewers the most was that the ambitious, young Sargent had boldly portrayed a new brazen 'type' in Parisian society: the so-called professional beauty, a woman who audaciously used her appearance to gain celebrity and advance her social standing".
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York