Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman 

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA and Studio (1769-1830)

Portrait of a Gentleman, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA and Studio
Oil on canvas
19th Century
50 x 40 inches
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Thomas Lawrence was the last of the great English portraitists. His depiction of the Regency generation, in all its gauche excessiveness, remains a dazzling highlight of English art compared to the sober veneration of his Victorian followers. The present picture is typical of Lawrence’s elegantly dramatic three quarter length portraits. The sitter, who at present remains unidentified, is shown leaning forward with a slight but perceptible sense of movement, thus appearing to engage with the viewer to a far greater degree than in the occasionally static compositions of Lawrence’s contemporaries. The picture also reveals the rapid brushwork that became a hallmark of Lawrence’s technique, with the paint rapidly but almost casually applied in the costume and drapery, together with deft touches and highlights in the face and hands.

Lawrence’s exuberant technique, born out of a supreme confidence in handling oil paint, reveals the instinctive side of his art. He was almost entirely self-taught, and began his portrait practice at the age of just ten, when, for a guinea a go, guests at his father’s inn near Bath could be drawn by a celebrated local prodigy, hailed as a Mozart of art. Sitters included the young William Pitt, drawn in profile in the early 1780s [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd].

Although Lawrence’s first serious portrait commissions were done in pastel, it was not long before he felt able to advance onto oils, a remarkable feat given that he never felt it necessary to undertake any formal artistic training. An early success was the well-known portrait of Elizabeth Farren, a famous beauty and mistress of the Earl of Derby [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. Painted in 1790, when Lawrence was just twenty, it astonished viewers at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition as a work of daring coquettishness, full of movement and vibrancy, and approached with a freshness only possible with innate talent. Another early work, again from 1790, was his first royal commission, a full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte [National Gallery, London]. Despite his own frank admission that Charlotte resembled ‘an old grey parrot’, the work was widely acclaimed. Reynolds, then President of the Academy, reportedly declared, ‘In you, sir, the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve.’

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lawrence’s art was a spectacular ability to capture likeness. Walter Scott’s opinion that “next to seeing the great men themselves, nothing can equal beholding them on the canvas of Lawrence…” gives an idea of his eventual reputation as the leading purveyor of likenesses in Europe. His confidence in handling paint, and thus painting quickly, meant that he was able to capture sudden moments of life and sensitivity in his sitters. It was through this ‘painterly’ approach that Lawrence, following on from earlier eighteenth century English artists such as Reynolds and Romney, came to dominate portrait painting in England, Europe and even America well into the nineteenth century amongst his successors, from Francis Grant to John Singer Sargent.
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