Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a young woman 1801

John Russell RA 

Portrait of a young woman, John Russell RA
Pastel on paper
18th Century
24 x 17 ½ inches 61 x 45 cm
This portrait demonstrates Russell’s considerable versatility in the medium of pastel, one which he had made very much his own by this date. Not only does he show that in pastel the artist can achieve a subtlelty and gentle gradation in tone not easily perfected in oil painting, but by the inclusion of the candle makes a claim for those effects of light and chiaroscuro normally considered the exclusive preserve of the oil medium. The illusionistic suggestion of candlelight has a long pedigree in British painting, imported perhaps by the chiaroscuro of Godfried Schalken (1643 – 1706), and brought to great effect in the eighteenth century by Joseph Wright of Derby. Perhaps the direct ancestor in mood of our portrait, however, are paintings such as The Pretty Young Ballad Singer (Christie’s sale 17th March 1937 lot 47) by Henry Robert Morland (?1719 – 1797) in which a young woman’s soft face is lit by a gentle light, which accentuates and – since the candle flame is fleeting – embodies her youth.

When still young, Russell had been apprenticed by his father to Francis Cotes, whose manner in crayon portraits was so influential on his own. He also admired the pastel drawings of Rosalba Carriera and the study of both painters bore fruit in his own unparalleled competence in the field of pastel portraiture, so that he was already sending portraits to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy from their inception in 1769. By his death in 1806 he had had three hundred and thirty-two of his works hung on the walls of the Academy. It was not until 1788, however, that he began to receive the official recognition that his talent deserved. In that year he was made a member of the Royal Academy. In the following year he received a commission from the king to paint his physician, the unorthodox Francis Willis who had treated him during his recent attack of porphyria. The King was sufficiently impressed by the result to commission portraits of the Queen (exhibited 1790) and the Prince of Wales (signed and dated 1789, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University). In the exhibition catalogue of 1790 he is described as ‘Painter to the King and the Prince of Wales.’
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