Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727) PRS 1726

John Vanderbank (1694-1739)

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727) PRS, John Vanderbank
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25inches 76.2 x 63.5cm
The Carnot family, France. By tradition the portrait was given to the family by the niece of the French military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur et Marechal de Vauban (1633-1707)
Newton’s formal education began when he studied for four years at the King’s School Grantham. He proceeded from there to Trinity College Cambridge, with a brief hiatus in which he was summoned home to tend his bereaved mother’s farm. Plainly not intended for farming, Newton pursued his studies at Cambridge until he retired to his birthplace, Woolsthorpe, through fear of the plague. It was during this period that he laid the foundations of his study of optics. On his return to Cambridge he was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1668 and in the following year was made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Succeeding his tutor Isaac Barrow.

Newton is still considered to have been among England''s greatest scientists, and remains the most celebrated. Hs achievement is also a monument to that age, the late seventeenth century, when three Englishmen, Newton, Wren and Purcell, performed feats that gained international acclaim in the fields of science, architecture and music. Newton''s two great contributions to the study of mathematics and physics were the Principia Mathematica of 1686 and the Opticks of 1704. In recognition of this and much other work he was President of the Royal Society –to which he was elected in 1672- from 1703 until his death in 1727.

Newton was appointed by Queen Anne to be Warden and later Master of the Mint, in which office he was responsible for revising the coinage. This achievement, in addition to his scientific prowess, was rewarded with a knighthood in 1705.

This portrait of Newton is an autograph version by Vanderbank, relating to a three-quarter-length seated portrait of 1726 in the collection of the Royal Society. The lettering top right would seem to be a later repetition of an original inscription obscured when a two inch strip was added to the canvas, apparently in order to make the picture a standard French size. The motif of the snake swallowing its own tail is again employed in the background of the Royal Society portrait, and is a traditional emblem of eternity.

Vanderbank produced two portrait types of Newton, in 1725 and 1726. The 1725 portrait shows the sitter wearing his own hair, and is also represented by an unusually bold, almost schematic, oil on paper sketch. Both of these paintings are in the collection of the Royal Society.

John Vanderbank’s technique is distinct among portraitists of the early eighteenth century. He trained under Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1711 and follows in the traditions of grand portraiture that had become part of Van Dyck''s legacy to British painting. His work, however, is characterised by a more vital and nervous drawing than that of his contemporaries, and by a bold pigmentation, particularly in the flesh, where hot pink and cool grey-green are juxtaposed to suggest glowing skin -the technique of colori cangianti, derived via Rubens from the artists of the secento. Equally distinctive in Vanderbank’s work is the means by which mid-tones are represented on the canvas by unpainted areas of grey-green primer.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.