Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Alexander Pope 1688 - 1744 1720c.

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Portrait of Alexander Pope 1688 - 1744, Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
W K Wimsatt, The Portraits of Alexander Pope Yale University Press, 1965
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This significant profile, of a type favoured by Kneller, is closely related to neumismatic design. It was unusual to pose male subjects of this period in this way, and refers directly to medallic traditions. The ancient symbol of eternity, the uroboros, a serpent biting its own tail, is geometrized into a medallic frame. The classical reference, which the medallic design conjures up, is endorsed by the wearing of a toga and a wreath of ivy leaves - its meaning interpreted by Pope himself in his ''Essay on Criticism'':
'on whose honour'd Brow The Poet''s Bays and Critick''s Ivy grow.'

Both Virgil's ''Ecologue 7'' and Horace''s ''First Ode'' preceeded this renaissance idea that ivy was the apt symbol of the poet's learning and labour. Pope himself was apparently the first to reserve the ivy for the critic.

In this way the portrait epitomises the Augustan revival in British art and poetry - of which Kneller and Pope were respectively the main exponents. It also allowed the artist, on a more practical level, to display Pope's striking profile.
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