Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, with a Portrait of the Old Pretender 1749

Cosmo Alexander (1724 - 1772)

Self-Portrait, with a Portrait of the Old Pretender, Cosmo Alexander
Oil on canvas
18th Century
11 3/4 x 9 1/2 inches 30 x 24 cms
This portrait, showing an artist working in his studio on an unfinished canvas, is a unique and important work from the Jacobite era. Until recently it was thought to be a self-portrait of a member of the Highmore family. However, recent research and conservation has revealed that the picture on the artist’s easel is an unfinished portrait of James III, the ‘Old Pretender’. Such is the precision with which the outline of James has been drawn, that it has been possible to identify which portrait, and therefore which artist, is depicted; a portrait of the Pretender done by Alexander in Rome, probably in 1749 (Private Collection).

Cosmo Alexander’s artistic career was dominated by his ardent adherence to the exiled Stuart kings of Scotland and England. This particular this portrait vividly illustrates not only the defining moment of his career, but also the importance attached to portraiture by the Jacobites. Alexander was born in Aberdeen into an artistic family, but the young Cosmo’s early artistic career was interrupted by his part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Declared a wanted man after the battle of Culloden in 1746, he was forced to flee to the Italian court-in-exile of the Stuarts. He there found a ready market for portraits among the sizeable Scottish community, and before long, in 1747, received a commission from the Pretender himself. In 1749 he was again commissioned to produce a series of the Stuart family; James, his late wife Maria Clementina, and his two sons, Prince Charles and Cardinal York.

Portraits of the exiled James III, or ‘The King over the Water’ as he was known by supporters, were a vital part of keeping the Stuart cause alive. Such works were chiefly political, or propagandist, and designed to create, or maintain, loyalty among Stuart followers. There was an added demand for such works after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s romantic failure in the invasion of 1745. For Alexander, such royal patronage became his livelihood, and he continued to paint portraits of the Stuarts, and their followers, when he moved to Paris in the early 1750s.

James’ 1747 commission was undoubtedly a breakthrough moment in the young artist’s career, and must therefore be the inspiration for the present self-portrait. Further indications of attribution to Alexander, in addition to the similarity in likeness , can be drawn from an earlier and larger self-portrait in the Aberdeen Art Gallery, in which the pose, drapery and prominence of the palette and brushes is similarly handled. It is interesting to speculate that the size of the present portrait allowed for easy transportation, perhaps to be sent back to family in Scotland. However, Alexander is known to have painted small portrait canvases, such as his Dr. William Gordon of Montrose (Sotheby’s June 12th 2003).

Following the collapse of Jacobite support in England in the 1750s, Alexander was able to return to London, and eventually Scotland in 1755, where he continued to paint portraits of the principle Jacobite families. However, he seems never to have lost his itinerant spirit, and later worked variously in the Netherlands, and most famously in America, where he took on a young Gilbert Stuart as his pupil.
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