Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman in Masque Dress 1750c.

Thomas Hudson (1701-79)

Portrait of a Gentleman in Masque Dress, Thomas Hudson
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
This portrait is a superb example of Thomas Hudson working at the very top of his form. The fact that Hudson was -with Ramsay- the most popular and the most successful portraitist of the middle decades of the eighteenth century has perversely obscured his considerable talents in the eyes of later critics. Horace Walpole remarks that against the competition of émigré artists:

''...the country gentlemen were faithful to their compatriot, and were content with his honest similitudes, and with the fair tied wigs, blue velvet coats, and white satin waistcoats, which he bestowed liberally on his customers'' 1`

Such a staid and provincial conception of Hudson's art is at once exploded by a portrait such as this. A number of Hudson's portraits display the same interest in fancy dress, often employing the ''Van Dyck'' costume that was popular throughout the century for fêtes. His Portrait of George Hunt, for example, not only displays the sitter in Van Dyck dress and a Vandyckian pose, but also holding a mask identical with the example in the present portrait. Clearly this piece -which occurs elsewhere in Hudson''s portraits of the late 1740s/ early 1750s- was something of a studio prop.

The extravagantly Italian suit and cloak that this sitter is wearing, however, seem to have no immediate parallel in Hudson's work. Hudson visited Italy briefly in 1752, but this portrait need not derive directly from that encounter. It displays an awareness of Italian Grand Tour portraiture as practised by Mengs and Batoni, which would have been arriving in England at about this date as souvenirs of the Grand Tour. The background with a cypress allée leading to a tempietto, beyond which the artist gives a suggestion of mountains, contributes to the evocation of Italy, without necessarily implying a specific location.

The costume here is, of course, unlikely to be the work of Hudson himself. He employed a large studio -Wright of Derby and Reynolds are his most celebrated pupils- and the draperies are frequently the work of the Van Aken brothers, who are also employed at this date by Ramsay. The conception, however, is entirely his, and confirms the inventiveness of his talent. Conscious of the divide between fashionable painting in London, and the swagger portrait as being refined in Italy Hudson can be seen to bridge the gap with this elegant work, in which the refinement of his characterisation is enhanced by the flamboyant costume of the Carnevale.

1. Horace Walpole Anecdotes of Painting in England Revised edition edited Dalloway 1876 vol. II p.323
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