Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman, c.1805 

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portrait of a Gentleman, c.1805, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
24 x 20 in (61 x 50.8 cm)
Marguerite Singer Smith, Connecticut, USA
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Thomas Lawrence was perhaps the last of the great English portraitists. His depiction of the Regency generation, in all its gauche excessiveness, remains a highlight of English art compared to the sobre veneration of his Victorian followers. Although his reputation suffered in the nineteenth century, as English society recoiled from the ‘vulgarity’ of George IV’s reign (George and Lawrence died in the same year), Lawrence’s work continues to be admired.

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 Lawrence’s impressive ability to capture likenesses, and his contemporary reputation as one of the leading portraitists of Europe. Lawrence was an instinctive painter, and thus able to capture sudden moments of life and sensitivity in his sitters. He enjoyed a supreme confidence in handling oil paint, as can be seen in the bold, exuberant technique, in this picture. It was through this ‘painterly’ approach that Lawrence, following on from earlier eighteenth century English artists such as Reynolds and Romney, came to dominate the style of many portraitists in England, such as Sir Francis Grant, and even in America, if we include John Singer Sargent.

Lawrence 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 really bothered with 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. Joshua Reynolds, then President of the Academy, reportedly declared, ‘In you, sir, the world will expect to see accomplished what I have failed to achieve [Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence (London 2005) p. 96].

This dramatic portrait of a gentleman is painted with all of Lawrence’s habitual assurance. The neck-tie, for example, is effectively one single continuous brushstroke, while the jacket and background have been quickly painted with broad, robust brushwork. The composition is brought sharply into focus in the face, where the sitter’s features and hair are portrayed with realism and depth. Small flashes of colour and deft highlights, such as the hint of yellow around the eyes and red in the cheeks, add detail amidst the rapidity. It is probably an unfinished portrait, and may have been cut down from the larger, bare canvas. It dates from the mid 1800s, just as Lawrence was confirming his domination of the artistic scene in London.
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