Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Battle of the Pyrenees 1812 1812 – 1815

John Singleton Copley RA (1738 –1815)

The Battle of the Pyrenees 1812, John Singleton Copley
Oil on canvas
19th Century
78 x 85 inches 198.1 x 215.9 cm
The artist; By descent to his son Sir John Singleton Copley Lord Lyndhurst (1772 – 1863); His sale Christie, Manson and Woods, London, 5 March 1864 lot 87 bt Radclyffe; M. Grist, Hackney; Martha Babcock Amory, Boston; Her daughter Susan Green Dexter; Bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Mrs Dexter in memory of her parents Charles and Martha Babcock Amory; Deaccessioned 2004
Augustus Thorndyke Perkins A Sketch of the life and List of the Works of John Singleton Copley Boston 1873 pp 127, 133 –134; Frank W. Bayley The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley Boston 1915 pp 35, 36, 57; Jules David Prown John Singleton Copley in England 1774 – 1815 NGA Washington 1966 pp. 381-382, 378-379, 436
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This epic history painting, begun in 1812, the year in which the Peninsula Campaign had finally turned decisively in favour of the then Lord Wellington’s British and Portugese forces, portrays three of the army’s principal officers at the Battle of the Pyrenees. On the left is the Prince of Orange, who later became King William of the Netherlands, and who nominally commanded the Dutch allied contingent at Waterloo in June 1815. In the centre is Lord Wellington, who as Duke sat to Copley for this portrait in 1814. Interestingly the Duke sat in the morning to Copley and in the afternoon of the same day to Sir Thomas Lawrence for the celebrated portrait now hanging at Apsley House. To the right of this group is the Duke’s ADC and Assistant Military Secretary the Earl of March, later 5th Duke of Richmond. Lord March served alongside Wellington in the Peninsula from 1810 –1814 and then again at Waterloo.

In 1811 the American painter Samuel F Morse wrote that the painter was ‘very old and infirm’1 whilst Farington at the same date noted ‘a sort of absent, bewildered manner.’2 The painter’s ambition had not left him, however, and he tailored an entirely new manner to his new circumstances, one which sacrificed naturalism for a powerful figure tableaux. Had Copley chosen to paint the horses of his three central figures true to nature he would have been entirely unable to achieve the frantic tightness and movement that gives this picture its dynamic core. It is difficult to distinguish the horses and riders in their relationship to one another, so closely packed are the heads and legs of the mounts, but the crucial details, those that set the mood remain clear, whilst the pentiments – visible for example in one of the legs of Wellington’s horse - show how carefully Copley constructed this tight, dynamic central grouping. Indeed the stylised reduction of the horses allows us to glimpse such details as the boot, jammed into the stirrup as Lord March gallops forward to speak with his general, and the whole conveys the urgency and vigour of the battlefield. The painter deliberately manipulates figures and space with the intention of conveying a specific idea and mood, and in this stylised tableau achieves a new level of artistic vision.

1. Prown 1966 p.381
2. ibid
3. ibid
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