Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) 1787

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), Thomas Gainsborough RA
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Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
 
Provenance:
Said to have been given by Thomas Gainsborough to Henry Golding, by whom bequeathed to Richard Whitfield, and by descent to G. Whitfield-Hayes, Walton-on-Thames England with Howard Young Galleries, New York Joseph L. Werner, Clayton MO, and by descent.
Literature:
Waterhouse, Walpole Society XXXIII 1953 Preliminary Checklist of the Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough p.85 The Antiquarian vol. XV, 6th December 1930.
Exhibited:
St. Louis City Art Museum Special Loans from St. Louis Collections July 1935 no. 8 San Francisco, Golden Gate International Exposition Masterworks of Five Centuries 1939 no. 126 New York World''s Fair Masterpieces of Art May - October 194
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The significance of this painting lies not only in the fact it is one of the very last, highly distinguished portraits by the artist, but also in the fact that it is a notable return to the recognised corpus of Gainsborough's work. Waterhouse1 allowed none of the extant portraits of William Pitt the full status of an autograph work, but significantly he never saw this particular version personally, as it was in an American collection. The painting was similarly attributed by Hugh Belsey of Gainsborough’s House, but together with extensive research by Anthony Mould into the work of Gainsborough Dupont, a reassessment of this work has been made possible by Dr John Hayes. He has inspected the portrait and firmly establishes this work as an autograph work by Thomas Gainsborough datable to c.1787.2

To date, only one other extant version of this portrait may be able to claim autograph status: the portrait of Pitt in the Paul Mellon Collection is of the same format as this example, and is believed to be by Gainsborough's hand, but the addition of a glandiferous border seems to place it at a remove from the studio freshness of this example.

When William Pitt sat to Gainsborough in 1787 it might be said that each man was at the height of his powers. That year saw Pitt, only twenty eight yet in his fourth year as Prime Minister, succeed in restoring English influence on the Continent and in checking -for a while at least- the warlike expansion of France. Equally, as this portrait makes abundantly clear, Thomas Gainsborough had only improved in technique and acuity in half a century of painting.

The directness and spontaneity in the execution of this portrait and the Mellon variant with glandiferous oval surround leave one to suppose that these are the prime versions. The swift, wet on wet brushstrokes, the apparently loose but delicate modelling of the face and hair and the rapid, abbreviated shadows over the right shoulder are all signature passages of Gainsborough''s late style. That we seem to be dealing with a first version is suggested by both technical details such as the pentiments in the cravat and linen collar as much as from the sitter''s air of vulpine attentiveness. This latter was -at least anecdotally- regarded by contemporaries as an arrogant glance which Pitt shot at Gainsborough when the latter, annoyed by his sitter''s absorption in a book, ''began carelessly to hum, toll, roll de roll, on hearing which Mr Pitt recollected himself, shut his book, and sat in a proper manner.''3

With a sitter of Pitt''s importance it would be usual practice -as Gilbert Stuart was to do with his famous Washington portrait- for the prime version to remain in the artist's studio as the source for a lucrative series of copies. Gainsborough, however, died in the following year, and the large (50 x 40) portrait that was sent to the Marquess of Buckingham at Stowe was recognised at the time to have been completed by Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew. The copies that Dupont executed -showing the Prime Minister dressed as here, in both bust and three-quarter length, and at the same size in the robes of the First Lord of the Treasury- have obscured the study of autograph Gainsborough portraits of Pitt. The Gainsborough Dupont versions, frequently sold as works by his uncle, are quite detectable today, however, and as copies easily distinguishable from such an arresting and spontaneous work as this portrait.

William Pitt was younger son of William Pitt Earl of Chatham, who was, like his son, Prime Minister. His chief claim to celebrity is that he was – and remains – the youngest person ever to be Prime Minister, as he assumed office on December 19th 1783 aged twenty-four. This is an impressive detail, but it is a symptom of his tireless ability and application. Unlike his father he was a skilled financier, and also devoted his energies to rooting out corruption, renegotiating trade tariffs with France and pursuing political union with Ireland.

The Revolutionary French declaration of war in 1793 began a downturn in Pitt’s fortunes. In 1798 the Irish rebelled against his policies. As a solution he proposed an Act of Union, which was to include a provision for Catholic Emancipation. This was rejected by the King, and in 1801 Pitt resigned in protest. The pressures of his political career combined to ruin Pitt’s health and, never strong, he undermined his constitution with overwork and drink. He returned to office in 1804 and constructed an alliance of Austria, Russia and Sweden against Napoleon. He did not live to see the Emperor finally defeated, however, and it is said that the news of the French victory at Austerlitz in 1806 hastened his death in that year.


1. Ellis Waterhouse, The Walpole Society Volume XXXIII 1953 Preliminary Checklist of Portraits by Thomas Gainsborough p.85

2. Private correspondence with Dr John Hayes December 6th 2002. We are grateful to Anthony Mould, who is compiling the catalogue raisonné for the portraits of Gainsborough Dupont (for publication in the proceedings of The Walpole Society) for confirming in his opinion that the painting is stylistically incompatible with the work of Gainsborough Dupont. In his view it is an entirely autograph work by his uncle, and he will illustrate it as the prime for Gainsborough Dupont’s copies

3. The Diary of Joseph Farington, edited by K. Garlick and A. Macintyre IV Yale 1979 p130. Farington relates in this account that Gainsborough related this to the painter Francis Bourgeois who:
One day… called on [Gainsborough] & saw a half-length portrait, and was struck with the haughty expression of the countenance, and observed it to Gainsborough, who expressed satisfaction at the remark, as it proved that He had hit the character. Gainsborough said it was a portrait of Mr Pitt, who He said came the day before to sit for his picture, and on coming into the painting room sat down in the Sitter’s Chair, and taking out a book began to read. Gainsborough struck with the hauteur and disrespectful manner of Mr Pitt, treated him in this way.- He took up his pallet & seeming to be trifling among his colours, began carelessly to hum toll, loll de roll, on hearing which Mr Pitt recollected himself, shut his book, and sat in the proper manner.

Gainsborough was very familiar and loose in his conversation to his intimate acquaintance; but knew his own value; was reserved; and maintained an importance with his sitters, such as neither Beechey nor Hoppner can preserve. (ibid.)
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