Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of James Macardell (1729-1765) 1750c.

Marcellus Laroon 

Portrait of James Macardell (1729-1765), Marcellus Laroon
Oil on canvas
18th Century
23 1/2 x 15 3/4 inches 60 x 40.1 cm
With the Sabin Galleries, 1962
Robert Raines Marcellus Laroon Yale 1967 p.111 cat.8
Portraits are rare in Laroon's oeuvre. It seems probable from remarks preserved by George Vertue that he came relatively late to this genre (although Laroon's entire artistic career would seem to have been undertaken less for profit than for his own entertainment) ''which seems a little aukard to begin with, after 50 four or five.'' Only four portraits by Laroon survive of which this example and an earlier self portrait are the most accomplished. Laroon's technique with a heavy use of medium has been compared to ''stained tapestry'' or coloured drawing, and although here the paint has been more heavily applied than is seen in other works throughout his career -Laroon's technique shows little discernible variation throughout his life- the outlining of the features and the highlights on the hand and stock are characteristic. Like his other works, this portrait shows Laroon to have been among very few English painters who truly had a feel for the lightness and grace of the French rococo, which is correctly expressed in his work through a light palette and an elegance of drawing. It is unsurprising that the sale of his collection in 1775 included a number of works attributed to Watteau.

This sureness in handling elements more common to the continental tradition was a result, no doubt both of Laroon's paternity and his remarkably various upbringing. His father was Marcellus Lauron the elder (d 1702), a French portrait painter and copyist who went to England from The Hague, and to whom King Charles II had sat. Laroon was brought educated in London. In 1697-8 he attended a peace conference at Ryswick as a page, in which capacity he also went to Venice for Charles Montagu, 4th Earl of Manchester. In 1698 he returned to London and worked as a singer for Colley Cibber at the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1707 he enlisted in the army, participating in campaigns in Flanders, Spain and Scotland. During a break from military life he joined the Rose and Crown Club in London and worked in Kneller's Academy, although he did not devote himself to his artistic career until 1732 when he retired from the army. The mass of his oeuvre consists of elegant and rather idiosyncratic genre scenes in oil or pencil, which his leisure allowed him to explore without the more pressing concerns of his fellow painters. The absence of hackwork from his art is one of its more pleasing features, and his oeuvre is a fascinating compendium of rococo genre, literary subjects and works such as his paintings of noble levees and musical parties, which remain an important documentary window onto comfortable life during the reign of George II.

James Macardell, the subject of this painting, was described by Sir Joshua Reynolds as the man by whom he would be ''immortalised''. Writing from an age when the mezzotint engraving is no longer the chief means of broadcasting paintings to a wide audience it is easy to forget the sincerity of this remark. Very few people would ever see more than a small part of a painter''s output ''in the flesh'' and so an artist would often be judged on the basis of print reproductions of his work. Mezzotint was the only form of engraving that reproduced the nuances of oil painting sufficiently for this purpose, and the most accomplished practitioners were highly prized. Kneller, for example, was famous among his contemporaries, the majority of whom may not have seen more than a handful of his paintings, through the engravings of Smith and Faber. Thus Macardell was prized by Hudson and Reynolds, from whose portraits he engraved twenty-five and thirty-four plates respectively.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.