Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady 1790s

John Hoppner RA (17581810)

Portrait of a Lady, John Hoppner RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Henry Graves, London; Camille Groult Collection, Paris.
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This haunting portrait of a young woman dressed fashionably a la turquoise shows that during the 1790s, Hoppner's most inspired period of work, he had not only extended portraiture in a romantic direction beyond that of Reynolds and Gainsborough, but that he was equal to Lawrence in conception and technique. Nominally the son of a German doctor and a Lady in Waiting to the Princess of Wales, John Hoppner was dogged by rumours that he was the illegitimate son of the future King George III. 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.

His early success justified these attentions, and he won a Gold Medal at the Royal Academy Schools in 1782, exhibiting frequently from 1780 until the year before his death. In 1789 he was appointed painter to the Prince of Wales, many of whose circle he painted.

His early works display a great debt to the later portraits of Reynolds, but he soon developed an individual style that is distinguished by bravura and vivacity, combined with a strong feeling of character. From the 1790s he was also the only serious rival to the young Lawrence and with him was responsible for painting the finest Romantic portraits of the Regency period. These works (of which the present portrait is a fine example) show a deliberate move away from the classicism of Reynolds, towards a more emotionally engaging yet naturalistic image.

Although the sitter in this portrait remains unidentified, the late Professor Ellis Waterhouse saw a resemblance to the celebrated actress Elizabeth Siddons (1755-1831). There may be no substance in this, but the almost sybilline power of the sitter as she emerges from a tenebrous wooded background, her form blocked in with masterfully economical strokes of white and grey, must recall that of the eighteenth century's most compelling actress.
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