Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait sketch of an elderly man 1810c.

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portrait sketch of an elderly man, Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
Falmouth Art Gallery, ''Posers'', 4th March-6th May 2006
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This portrait of an old man is perhaps more powerful for being unfinished. The portrait has begun to take on the form of the intended, finished work, with its framing backdrop of a deep red curtain suggested by free, thick brushwork. The old man’s face, plainly the point from which Lawrence began the composition, has achieved a penetrating, almost yearning soulful expression, with which the viewer engages in a manner reminiscent somehow of the instinctive wordless communion one experiences with animals in a painting by Landseer. The likeness does not seek to flatter, nor to reflect anything other than the natural decrepitude of age, and is executed with an honesty that might make one suspect that the sitter is a model whose features and character ignited Lawrence’s pictorial imagination as a subject, rather than a gentleman patron. This is not certain, however; the portrait remains unidentified as well as unfinished, but the red curtain that has already been added to the portrait is a gentlemanly prop, and it is still far from impossible that the painting was intended for a formal commission.

In its present form the painting is a very instructive lesson in the way in which Lawrence constructed a portrait. His technique of treating the facial features in a manner approaching caricature in order to achieve both an appropriately suggestive expression and likeness is apparent in the shadowed eye sockets and in the bright liquid gaze that he emphasises through the strong highlights placed in each eye. The shaggy eyebrows help to concentrate the power of a benign gaze that envelops the viewer in tolerance and understanding. Lawrence’s preference for bold, pure colours and broad, robust brushwork ensures that age need not imply enfeeblement, and the sitter appears still to be in rude health from the high colour of his cheeks.
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