Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of The Hon. Dorothy Burns (née Duveen) (1903-85) 

Ambrose McEvoy (1878-1927)

Portrait of The Hon. Dorothy Burns (née Duveen) (1903-85), Ambrose McEvoy
Oil on canvas
20th Century
50 x 40 3/8 in (127.1 x 102.6 cm)
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This striking society portrait shows Dorothy Duveen, the daughter of Joseph, later Lord Duveen, the celebrated art dealer. McEvoy had been granted a prestigious one-man show at Duveen’s important galleries in New York in 1920, and had proved instantly popular, winning a series of commissions at $5,000 each. This work was almost certainly painted then.

McEvoy began his career at the Slade School of Fine Art, having been encouraged by, among others, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His artistic friends included Augustus John, with whom he briefly lived, and in 1898 he became romantically involved with Gwen John. McEvoy first focused on genre painting, but after exhibiting a portrait of his wife, Mary, at the National Portrait Society in 1915, increasingly focused on portraiture. During the First World War, he was despatched to the Western Front and to the North Sea fleet to record Victoria Cross winners and senior officers. These military portraits can be seen today at the Imperial War Museum. Amongst them are a moving series of highly decorated lower ranks, such as Petty Officer E Pitcher VC, who, despite their heroic actions, convey only a hollow sense of weariness.

McEvoy frequently experimented with composition and technique. He was one of the first artist’s to focus on mixing artificial and natural light in his portraits, which accounts for the forceful projection of Dorothy Duveen towards the viewer here. As with many of McEvoy’s portraits, the viewer’s attention is maintained by an unusual perspective or pose, thus enlivening an otherwise formal and static composition. In his portrait of Ramsay MacDonald [House of Commons, London] McEvoy looks up towards the Prime Minister from waist height, as if we are catching him in a private moment. In this picture, Dorothy Duveen is placed on the edge of her seat, hands clasped politely, but impatiently, perhaps waiting for the sittings to end. Dorothy Duveen was painted by a host of eminent artists, such as Augustus John, Dorothy Vicaji, and Harrington Mann.

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