Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait sketch of a gentleman 1780s

George Romney (1734-1802)

Portrait sketch of a gentleman, George Romney
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
Collection of Charles Baxter (1809 – 1879), 6 Lidlington Place, Hampstead Road, London; His studio sale Christies 15th March 1879 lot 98 (bt ? Partington 25 gns) or lot 99 (Bt Lesser) stencil verso Maurice Kann sale, June 9th 1911 lot 54
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This portrait was sold in the posthumous studio sale in 1879 of Charles Baxter, an acclaimed portraitist and genre painter whose work is still represented in national collections, the greatest holding being perhaps in the Victoria and Albert Museum. As befitting a portrait in the collection of a connoisseur and a fellow-practitioner it is one of the more impressive examples of Romney’s brisk, fresh brushwork and open, genial characterisation. The recent removal of later overpaint – perhaps dating to Baxter’s ownership – has further revealed that the portrait is an unfinished sketch, a form in which Romney’s vigorous technique can be most easily appreciated. Like a great many painters of genius, rather than the plodding journeyman face-painters, Romney’s interest in his works appears often to have become exhausted after the first active phase of execution. Paintings such as the late unfinished Self-portrait (London, National Portrait Gallery) or the remarkable Lady Emma Hamilton as a gypsy (Private Collection formerly with Historical Portraits, London) show that he delighted in the broad free application of paint to the canvas, and the swift capturing of likeness and character, and he is to be forgiven for leaving many works at this exciting early stage before the dictates of convention obliged him to work up the painting to a finished state. In the present example the painter’s technique suggests his engagement with the sitter, and we feel that the sense of connection, the appreciation of the gentleman’s genial character is genuine and honestly transcribed.

The identity of the sitter is not known certainly. Two paintings fully attributed to Romney were sold in the 1879 sale, consecutive lots 98 and 99, one of which was identified as ‘Mr Dance the painter’, the other as ‘a gentleman.’ Nathaniel Dance (1735 – 1811), later Sir Nathaniel Dance –Holland would be too old at the date this portrait was painted to be the sitter, although there is a resemblance between our sitter and the painter’s brother, William Dance (1755 – 1840), a musician who founded the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Romney began his career in the North of England, but there was insufficient patronage to support a lucrative practice, and he moved to London in 1762. There he worked in a hard, precise manner, reminiscent of Nathaniel Dance, but he felt that his art lacked the schooling of Italy, and so set off across the Alps in 1773, in the company of the painter Ozias Humphrey.

When he returned in 1776 -quite penniless- he established himself once more in London, and very swiftly began to rival the long-established Gainsborough and Reynolds in popularity. His technique encompassed a thorough understanding of form and colour -and at times a greater concern with finish than is apparent in the works of his contemporaries- with a freshness and buoyancy that had an immediate appeal for clients. He has also made himself master of a neo-classical approach to portraiture which embraced modern fashion without compromising a naturalness that English sitters so admired.

Reynolds disliked the younger man intensely, not only for his sudden claim on part of Reynolds''s market, but also for fact that he prospered despite total independence from the Royal Academy. It must also be said that Romney's technique avoided the pitfalls of Reynolds's later experiments. The enduring life and freshness of the faces of Romney sitters was a telling contrast with the deathly pallor that, even in the subjects' lifetimes, had begun to emerge from the fading pigments of Reynolds.

Romney returned to Cumbria before his death in 1802. It was suggested that he ended his days in madness, but in fact he fell victim to the depression and introspection which was a facet of his character throughout his life, and which, absent from the effervescent world of his portraiture, finds expression in the dark tortured world of his history paintings and sketches. The late Self-portrait (National Portrait Gallery, London) depicts the painter as he was beginning to surrender to these demons.
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