Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Ewart Gladstone (1809 - 1898) 

Franz von Lenbach 

Portrait of William Ewart Gladstone (1809 - 1898), Franz von Lenbach
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Oil on canvas
19th Century
45 1/3 x 36 inches, 115 x 91.5 cm
 
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This picture is one of a number of portraits of William Gladstone, the great Liberal statesmen of the Victorian era, Franz Von Lenbach, the most celebrated German portraitist of his generation. Thanks to Gladstone’s diaries, we are able to document each of Lenbach’s portraits; the Prime Minister first sat to Lenbach in 1874, and then subsequently in 1879, and 1886. The present portrait dates from the final sittings.

Gladstone’s at first feigned reluctance to sit for his portrait, but a touching letter survives to his wife, Catherine, in which he describes the excitement of the commission. “I am going to be painted!”, he wrote on 12th September 1874 from Munich; “There is here a very remarkable painter named Lenbach – about 40. He paints (I understand not for money) those to whom he takes a fancy and Mr Morier has made him take a fancy to painting me. He has done a wonderful portrait of Moltke, and an excellent one of Dollinger, with one sitting, and a few photographs first taken. I have been for the photographs to-day and am to sit on Monday and then it is over! I cannot understand this at all – if I could pay I would but as matters stand I hope there is nothing to disburse. Lenbach refused to go to the Crimea to paint the Emperor of Russia – was horribly bored at having to paint the Emperor of Austria – and is going to Bismarck. Here is a tale from fairy land!” [Gladstone to his Wife, ed. A. Tilney Bassett, London 1936]

Gladstone loved posing for his picture, and was the first modern politician to see the value in projecting his image to as many people as possible. He had already spent many hours sitting to artists such as George Frederick Watts, and would later be portrayed by the likes of Millais, and the sculptor Edgar Boehm. In the letter to his wife, however, we see Gladstone’s amazement at Lenbach’s simultaneous use of photography with traditional portrait painting. Gladstone himself knew the potential of photography for creating his own public image. Photographs of the time show him posed as the stern visionary of the age, and even, through his fondness for felling massive trees, as a political strongman, axe in hand.

But Gladstone had never encountered the use of photography in mainstream art. His surprise at Lenbach’s practice is understandable, for even today we consider that a portraitist ought to study his subject over many long sittings, and that the use of a camera is somehow cheating. But Lenbach eagerly embraced the opportunities afforded by photography. For a portraitist used to long sittings with his subjects, who often lapsed into a silent and sullen stare, Lenbach found that cameras allowed him to observe, at length, the vivid expressions usually lost in a moment. He would often photograph his subjects secretly, behind a curtain, in order to see their most relaxed and honest expressions. As a result, Lenbach’s portraits are dramatically lifelike.

The later 1886 portraits show Gladstone as a visibly older man than the energetic visionary seen in Lenbach’s earlier portraits. The best known example from these sittings is a double portrait with the Bavarian Catholic controversialist and royal councilor, Ignaz Döllinger [Lenbach Museum, Germany]. The present portrait, hitherto unpublished and formerly at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, shows Gladstone as aged and almost infirm, but more animated than ever with an intense, piercing gaze. The depiction is reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s description of Gladstone as a “half-mad firebrand who would soon ruin everything and be a dictator!”


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