Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of The Prince of Wales, later King George IV (1762 - 1830) 1790

John Russell RA 

Portrait of The Prince of Wales, later King George IV (1762 - 1830), John Russell RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25inches 76.2 x 63.5cm
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The close association of the Prince of Wales, whose name throughout his adult life was a byword for self-indulgence, extravagance and vanity with the portraitist John Russell is a curious one in view of the latter’s temperance and evangelicalism, but it is a proof of the Prince’s taste and enthusiasm in art that he appreciated the talents of one whose society otherwise could not be compatible with his own.

When still young, Russell had been apprenticed by his father to Francis Cotes, whose manner in crayon portraits was so influential on his own. He also admired the pastel drawings of Rosalba Carriera and the study of both painters bore fruit in his own unparalleled competence in the field of pastel portraiture, so that he was already sending portraits to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy from their inception in 1769. By his death in 1806 he had had three hundred and thirty-two of his works hung on the walls of the Academy. It was not until 1788, however, that he began to receive the official recognition that his talent deserved. In that year he was made a member of the Royal Academy. In the following year he received a commission from the king to paint his physician, the unorthodox Francis Willis who had treated him during his recent attack of porphyria. The King was sufficiently impressed by the result to commission portraits of the Queen (exhibited 1790) and the Prince of Wales (signed and dated 1789, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University). In the exhibition catalogue of 1790 he is described as ‘Painter to the King and the Prince of Wales.’

A portrait of the Prince was exhibited in the following year, most probably the commissioned 1789 portrait, since a contemporary review describes it being in crayons. The Prince was clearly impressed with the painter enough to commission a portrait of Smoaker the Prince of Wales''s Bather at Brighton (Royal Collection) which was also shown at the Academy in 1791 (no.158). The crayon portrait resembles the present oil portrait extremely closely, and it would appear that Russell replicated the same pose in his portraits of the Prince whilst making slight modifications according to his own tastes, the passage of time and, perhaps, contemporary criticism. It was said of the drawing exhibited in 1791 that it was ‘an effeminate similitude of the Royal personage it is intended to represent.’ 1

If we consider the pastel of 1789 to be the earliest portrait of Russell’s portraits of the Prince, as seems extremely probable, the two oil portraits, the present example and the full-length portrait in the dress of the Kentish Bowmen painted in 1792 and exhibited at Royal Academy in the following year (no.182), represent the painter’s attempts to resolve this criticism. It is true that the pastel portrait shows a rather spiritless and diffident sitter, whose listless gaze only informs the portrait with the most vapid presence. The present portrait in oil – a medium very seldom employed by Russell, though he uses it twice, significantly, for portraits of the Prince – depicts a far more commanding and appropriately princely figure. The angle of the head has been altered very slightly, so that the gaze is now level and assured, and the portrait exudes elegant dignity, confidence and authority.

In this painting Russell is alive to the tonal richness of oil paint, and more than in his usual pastel gives a dramatic power to the lowering sky above the sitter’s head. A career’s experience with the bright pigments of pastel enable him, however, to provide numerous light touches in the almost Mediterranean blue of the sky and in the delicate colouring of the Prince’s complexion. The distinction between the colours of crayon and oil paint was especially apparent to contemporaries. One remarked2 on the unfairness of hanging crayon portraits in the Academy shows alongside oils, since their bright, clear colours were thought to provide a contrast detrimental to the latter. This portrait shows that Russell was well aware of the degree to which oil painting could be improved by the pastellist’s technique, which is especially apparent in the face and also in the curls of the hair, where the fine brushwork suggests lightness and movement.

Perhaps building on the far more successful treatment achieved in this portrait, Russell employed the same pose in his full-length portrait of the Prince as Patron of the Society of Kentish Bowmen (Royal Collection). This portrait extends the leaning pose of the present composition, but makes the Prince fuller in the face than here or in the pastel, no doubt reflecting with as much honesty as his position permitted the Prince’s ever-growing girth.

1. Anonymous reviewer May 23rd 1791 Royal Academy Exhibition cuttings book 1790s
2. Undated anonymous review (1791) Royal Academy Exhibition cuttings book 1790s.
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