Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (1646 - 1727) PRS 1725c.

Enoch Seeman 

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (1646 - 1727) PRS, Enoch Seeman
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
The more familiar portraits of Sir Isaac Newton are the half-lengths in his own hair (Private collection) and then in a wig (National Portrait Gallery) by Sir Godfrey Kneller painted in 1689 and 1702 respectively. Each is a magnificent study of this titanic figure in seventeenth century science, but there is a sense in which Newton is approached through his reputation, and the overriding impression conveyed in each portrait is of colossal and lonely genius rather than humanity. The portraits painted at the end of Newton's life by John Vanderbank (Royal Society, London; version Historical Portraits) share this characteristic, and are formidable images.

Enoch Seeman's portrait of Newton is, therefore, an interesting contrast with these. It dates to the same period as Vanderbank's paintings. This is suggested by the fact that the three-quarter length version after Seeman in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery shows a copy of the Optics open to show two diagrams that were only printed opposite each other in 1726. This painting is not the work of Seeman, but it plainly derives from this bust portrait or the similar version in the Master's Lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge, and although the NPG portrait must necessarily have been painted later than our portrait, if only fractionally, the age of the sitter certainly suggests a date c.1726.1

Seeman appears to have been able to approach Newton more conventionally, and the portrait is the likeness of an old man at the end of his life. His characterisation reveals frailty, which the others do not, and there is not the sense of a mortal frame animated by the restless powerhouse of superhuman intelligence. In this respect it is less iconic than the other portraits, but also, one must suspect, more honest. This very fact makes the painting an empathetic image in a way that the others cannot be, whose inner character is so shielded by reputation that the viewer must almost look away rather than look inwards too closely.

Newton's formal education began when he studied for four years at the King''s School Grantham. He proceeded from there to Trinity College Cambridge, with a brief hiatus in which he was summoned home to tend his bereaved mother's farm. Plainly not intended for farming, Newton pursued his studies at Cambridge until he retired to his birthplace, Woolsthorpe, through fear of the plague. It was during this period that he laid the foundations of his study of optics. On his return to Cambridge he was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1668 and in the following year was made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Succeeding his tutor Isaac Barrow.

Newton still enjoys the reputation of one of England's greatest scientists, and remains the most celebrated. Hs achievement is also a monument to that age, the late seventeenth century, when three Englishmen, Newton, Wren and Purcell, performed feats that gained international acclaim in the fields of science, architecture and music. Newton''s two great contributions to the study of mathematics and physics were the Principia Mathematica of 1686 and the Opticks of 1704. In recognition of this and much other work he was President of the Royal Society -to which he was elected in 1672- from 1703 until his death in 1727.

Newton was appointed by Queen Anne to be Warden and later Master of the Mint, in which office he was responsible for revising the coinage. This achievement, in addition to his scientific prowess, was rewarded with a knighthood in 1705.

1. David Piper (Catalogue of the Seventeenth Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625 - 1714) recognises that NPG 558 does not appear to be the work of Seeman. He records that the Cambridge portrait in the Master''s Lodge at Trinity has had an attribution to Seeman at least as early as 1760 (the date of the mezzotint). Stylistically our portrait confirms this attribution, as it reveals many of the hallmarks of Seeman''s manner.
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