Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady, possibly Mrs Crewe 

John Hoppner RA (1758–1810)

Portrait of a Lady, possibly Mrs Crewe, John Hoppner RA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in. (76 x 64 cm.)
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The present picture was likely painted early in Hoppner’s career, in the 1780s. Along with Gainsborough and Reynolds, Hoppner was one of the leading portrait painters in late eighteenth-century Britain. Born in London, he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1775, where he won a Gold Medal in 1782. His rapid rise, however, was accompanied by rumours (never denied by Hoppner) that he was the illegitimate son of the future King George III, a story which sprung from his mother’s position as a Lady in Waiting to the Princess of Wales, George’s mother. No strong evidence has ever been discovered to support the allegation, but it is true that in his education and early career Hoppner benefited from a considerable degree of royal sponsorship. He was brought up as a child of the Chapel Royal, tutored in the Royal Library where King George paid great attention to his progress, and finally presented with an allowance from the royal purse in order that he might establish himself as a painter.

By the late 1780s, Hoppner was a regular contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions and quickly established himself as a fashionable portrait painter. In 1789, he succeeded Reynolds in his appointment as painter to the Prince of Wales, many of whose circle he painted. In short, he seemed destined to become Reynolds’ successor as the leading portraitist of his age.

However, the sudden and triumphant rise of Thomas Lawrence had a deep impact on Hoppner’s early career. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790 Hoppner’s two entries, thoughtful and highly accomplished portraits of the Horneck sisters, were dramatically overshadowed by two of Lawrence’s greatest full-lengths – Queen Charlotte (National Gallery, London), and the actress Elizabeth Farren (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). As a result, Hoppner felt obliged throughout the 1790s to step out of Lawrence’s shadow, exhibiting an impressive fourteen paintings in the Academy exhibitions of 1791 and 1792, ten of which were Royal sitters.

And yet, it seems that the spirit of competition had a beneficial effect on Hoppner’s style and technique. Though his early works display a great debt to the later portraits of Reynolds, Hoppner soon developed an individual style that is distinguished by bravura and vivacity, combined with a strong feeling of character. These works show a deliberate move away from the classicism of Reynolds, towards a more emotionally engaging and naturalistic image. Hoppner’s success is evident by the fact that he became the only serious rival to the young Lawrence, and with him, was responsible for painting the finest Romantic portraits of the Regency period.

The present work displays the easy freedom and painterliness that set Hoppner apart from his contemporaries, and already shows the bold brushwork and harmonized tones and colours that are seen in his later works. While Reynolds’ advised his pupils to rely upon academic study, preparation and drawing, Hoppner preferred to begin working immediately with oils on the canvas. It was precisely this free and fluid approach that allowed Hoppner to capture not only character and presence, but combine them with fresh and remarkably involving compositions. It is an emotionally engaging and naturalistic image, and is evidence of a move away from the classicism of Reynolds.

It has previously been thought that the lady depicted was Frances Anne Crewe, Lady Crewe, née Greville (1748 –1818). However the youth of the sitter makes this attribution unlikely. The picture is dominated by the sitter’s relaxed mood of demure contemplation which contrasts with the brooding intensity of the stormy sky above her. Hoppner’s free use of the brush allows him to go beyond the traditional portrayal of beauty, with an altogether more alluring portrayal of a young woman, and despite Hoppner’s practice of not first drawing onto the canvas, he was still able to render a sitters’ faithful likeness. The sitter’s dress is painted in such a free manner that it almost looks unfinished, particularly in her lace bodice and frilled sleeves. The rapid energy with which the latter was painted gives an element of movement to the composition. She wears a fashionable picture hat, sometimes known as a portrait hat, which was a style reputedly designed by Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) for her c. 1785-7 Thomas Gainsborough portrait. The hat could be decorated with feathers or bows as the wearer wished and in the present picture a large pale yellow silk bow has been selected. Hoppner has chosen quite a simple, muted palette for this picture, which makes the yellow bow even more striking in contrast.
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