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Character in Portraiture

The MacNab by Sir Henry Raeburn, oil on canvas, 241 x 152cm, c 1814, Diageo plc, (on loan to Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow)

Painting an accurate likeness is a matter of time and hard work, but painting the look that unveils the character of the model is the true challenge and real aim of the portrait painter. Here are a few Old Master portraits which show the artists performing just this feat.

Above is the portrait of Francis MacNab, “The MacNab” by Henry Raeburn. Raeburn has given the clan chief a look of grim mulishness. The mouth droops in a dour scowl, the eyes glower and the brow thunders. From the catalogue of the 1997 exhibition of Raeburn’s works, we learn that the MacNab was said to “behave in the Age of Reason  like an unruly feudal lord, trying to ignore a load of inherited debts and becoming involved in numerous law suits…he considered it not merely incorrect but a positive insult to address the Laird of MacNab by “the contemptible Saxon prefix” of “Mr””. Raeburn impresses me both by his depiction and by his ability to make the cantankerous MacNab pose long enough to complete the portrait.

Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1650, oil on canvas, 140 x 120cm, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

Innocent X was trained as a lawyer and later became a nuncio (Vatican diplomat) before becoming pontiff in 1644. He was one of the shrewdest popes of the Counter-Reformation. Velazquez manages to instil in his portrait a look of intense scrutiny, lively intelligence and cunning. The portrait is particularly noteworthy for its total lack of holiness.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 92 x 71cm, 1815-1816, Apsley House, London

This portrait was painted just after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. Wellington is every inch the highly competent and disciplined commander. His mode of life on campaign was Spartan and hardworking and he was rarely one to show his emotions. In Lawrence’s portrait, this firmness of character is obvious from the steady and straightforward stare and the firmly crossed arms. We are very much in the presence of the Iron Duke.

George Nathaniel Curzon by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 100 x 78cm, 1914, Royal Geographical Society, London

Clever, cultivated and eloquent, Curzon seemed destined to reach great heights, but he was also presumptuous, pompous, self-important, arrogant and often bluntly critical. While at Oxford, Curzon was the inspiration for this waspish doggerel:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,

I am a most superior person.

My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,

I dine at Blenheim once a week.

He became Viceroy and Governor-General of India and a commanding and effective statesman but was never Prime Minister.

Sargent has painted him ramrod-straight, in the very grand uniform of the Order of the Garter, looking haughtily down upon the viewer*. Unfortunately, a teenage spinal injury required Curzon to wear a metal corset, adding to the impression of stiff arrogance.

*For a comprehensive explanation of the portrait see John Singer Sargent The Later Portraits by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice by Anders Zorn, oil on canvas, 90 x 66cm, 1894, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Isabella Stewart Gardner was an American art collector and great patron of the arts with a zest for life, an energetic intellectual curiosity and a love of travel. She was renowned for her stylish yet unconventional taste and eccentricity.

According to Hans Henrik Brummer*, “Zorn knew he had the right moment for his portrait when he witnessed the hostess enter the salon from the balcony, exalted after watching the fireworks, and turned to her guests with outstretched arms”. Zorn opined she was “magnificent like a princess and with a charming voice that made us her slaves.”

Lady Ligonier by Thomas Gainsborough, oil on canvas, 236.2 x 154.9 cm, 1770, Huntington Library Art Collections, San Marino, USA

Gainsborough has painted Lady Ligonier looking out boldly with her right hand resting provocatively on her swaying hip. Having placed a rose between her breasts, she props herself up against a pedestal adorned with a shell motif (a symbol of Venus). A statuette of a bacchante stands to her left, echoing her pose. She does look very fast.

Within months of sitting for this portrait Lady Ligonier embarked on an affair with Vittorio Amadeo, Count Alfieri. As the scandal unfolded, Lord Ligonier fought a duel with Alfieri and Lady Ligonier fled to France. Lord Ligonier sued for “criminal conversation” and was granted a divorce. When the painting was exhibited a few months later, some (male) critics found the portrait “highly graceful” and felt that Lady Ligonier had “something of a French look.”


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