Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Head Study of a Gentleman 

After Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt (1646-1723)

Head Study of a Gentleman, After Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt
Zoom
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
17 ½ x 15 inches, 44.cm x 38.1cm
 
Sir Godfrey Kneller dominates our understanding of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British portraiture. With Van Dyck, Lely and Reynolds, his name has become synonymous with the visual interpretation of British history – not least because he painted almost every person of prominence in forty years of British public life. Every reigning British monarch from Charles II to George I sat to Kneller.

Even after his death, the careers of accomplished disciples such as Charles Jervas (1675-1739) extended the limits of his influence into the 1740s, while his influence on later greats such as Reynolds is incontestable. It was, too, Kneller’s style and technique, perpetuated by engravings, which helped shape the idiom of Colonial American portraiture. And yet, for all the glories of his artistic legacy, Kneller’s reputation suffered in later generations as taste and technique changed. His bold use of impasto was at odds with those eighteenth century artists who preferred the fine finishes of neo-classicism. Finally, his prolificacy was held against him, and his portraits of a succession of important sitters constrained by the dictates of fashion and decorum were considered to be dominated by an augustan stiffness.

Unlike the majority of Kneller's surviving sketches in oils, the present work does not appear to relate directly to a known portrait commission and there is a particular intensity in the study which makes one feel that this was a study executed for its own sake. The rapidity of the handling and quick translation of the shadows rule out the possibility of studio intervention which all too often dull down the effect of Kneller’s brilliant style.

At some point in the past the study had been inserted into a larger canvas and a body was added by a later hand which distorted the intimacy and directness of the work.


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