Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, c.1708 

Enoch Seeman (1694-1744)

Self-Portrait, c.1708, Enoch Seeman
Oil on canvas
18th Century
21 x 17 in (53.3 x 43.1 cm)
Denis Cowell Collection, Lewes, Sussex
The self-portraits of Enoch Seeman ''in the finical manner of [Balthasar] Denner''1 that he painted in the early 1700s are impressive statements of the artist''s virtuosity. The combination of elegance of execution, personal beauty and exceptional talent is no doubt intended to recall the early self-portraits of Van Dyck in the previous century, whilst alluding further to the intellectual inner life of the Rembrandt School. This painting, which, with the ambitious Colonel Andrew Bisset and his family, appears to be the painter's earliest datable work in this country is a striking demonstration of excellence in such a young painter. Indeed the prominence of the inscription suggests that this painting may well have acted as an advertisement for the painter as he began to build a portrait practice in London.

The exceptional precocity of these self-portraits was recognised by no less a connoisseur than the Earl of Burlington. George Vertue2 records that Seeman ''did his own picture in that finisht manner extreamly well, when he was about 19 years old this picture was much admired. & Sig Ricci when he was here advisd Lord Burlington to give him 100 guineas for it but understanding he had a mind to make another therefore bought it not. Since that Lord bought it and is in his pose?.''This entry of 1723 refers to events a decade previously, as Sebastiano Ricci was working for Burlington in 1713 - 1714. As a comparison with the price suggested by Ricci it is worth noting that at the same date Sir Godfrey Kneller, the most fashionable of portraitists, was charging around sixty guineas for a privately commissioned full-length.

That Seeman was particularly taken with painting himself at this date confirmed by the number of self-portraits that exist from the period. A contemporary example (Historical Portraits, exhibited Southampton City Art Gallery 2001) is of similar composition and dimensions, and the untraced three-quarter-length self-portrait engraved by J. Faber (example National Portrait Gallery) must likewise be close in date, and is a dynamic suggestion of the artist in the very moment of inspiration. The most conceptually daring of these self-portraits is the artist's placing of himself in the background of Colonel Andrew Bisset and his family. Behind the Colonel and his wife and daughters there is a further shadowy figure, which was long believed to be a posthumous depiction of Bisset''s son. Comparison with this Self Portrait suggests that it is a further image of Seeman himself. In confirmation of this, the figure gestures towards a pedestal on which is inscribed Enoch Seeman. Pinx. AE. 18 1708.

The continental manner that Seeman employs in these self-portraits would, nonetheless, seem not to have been congenial to his clients for their own images. He sufficiently impressed Society to be able to pursue a career into the 1740s - in 1723 Vertue remarks that ''Enoch. for portrait Painting. is in the greatest vogue''3 - and his aristocratic and royal patronage makes him a rival to Charles Jervas, but his portraits are painted in a solid version of the prevailing London manner, plainly more to the public taste.

1. Horace Walpole Anecdotes of Painting ed. Dallaway 1876 vol II p294
2. Notebooks III p 15 - 16
3. ibid.
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