Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Natural Philosopher 1750s

 American Colonial School 

Portrait of a Natural Philosopher,  American Colonial School
Oil on canvas
18th Century
41 x 30 1/2 inches 104.14 x 77.5 cm
The portrait style of John Wollaston influenced a working generation of American painters, and introduced an immediately recognisable manner into the colonial repertoire. He left London for America in 1749, as others such as John Smibert had done before, unable to make headway in the highly competitive and overcrowded trade of face-painting in the capital. He was, however, a sufficient practitioner of the London style to attract a prosperous clientele in America. He flourished in New York from 1749 to 1752, before working in Maryland (1753-1754), Virginia (1754-1757) and Philadelphia (1758). In that year he moved to the West Indies, and painted portraits in St Kitts during 1764/5, before returning to Charleston and, ultimately, England in 1767. His date of death is unknown, but he is recorded in Southampton in 1775.
This portrait displays a number of features that associate it with the work of Wollaston, not least in the proportions of the sitter''s head, wherein the eyes, characteristically for Wollaston, are placed slightly higher than in nature. The pose derives broadly from Thomas Hudson, but as in other portraits by Wollaston, there is considerably concern with defining the sitter by the deployment of meticulously-drawn attributes. The portrait identified as Frederick Philipse II in the collection of the New York Historical Society is similarly posed with a pair of dividers and a map, in that case being used to suggest his considerable land holdings. Here the significance of the various objects is less immediately apparent. Resting on the table behind the sitter are a section and a book of algebra. The globe over which he poises the dividers is not a navigational but a celestial globe. The objects do not, therefore, immediately describe an exact vocation for the sitter of this portrait, although collectively they suggest a broad interest in mathematics and natural science, appropriate either in a specialist, or in the well-informed and curious gentleman amateur.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.