Portraits and politics

Posted by Tory Historian Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Commissioned portraits throughout history have, in one way or another, shown the social standing and political and cultural viewpoint of the sitter, whether it is done through the pose, the artfully arranged clothing or the extras in the painting – books, works of art, other implements such as swords or paintbrushes.

The recently closed exhibition at the Royal Academy, mentioned by Tory Historian before, “Citizens and Kings 1760 – 1830”, was of particular interest from this point of view, this being a period in which most political and social ideas were turned upside down. With it went many of the ideas of how to paint portraits.

Interestingly enough, the last of those was not entirely true. While Enlightenment ideas of greater emphasis on private and family life certainly took hold, attitudes to the correct way of posing and the correct understanding of aesthetic forms remained not dissimilar and, therefore, very different in Britain from the Continental ones.

On entering a room it is possible to pick out the English and Scottish paintings immediately, not just because Gainsborough, Lawrence and Reynolds are unmistakable or because there is a curious continuity about English physiognomy, but because of the attitude to and by the sitters.

No Continental painter, however hard he tried, could produce that odd feeling of relaxation and certainty that the British ones did. (It is important to remember that there were several extremely good Scottish portraitists at the time.) The one exception is Elisabeth VigĂ©e LeBrun, who even managed to paint children credibly and certainly produced interesting portraits that were much discussed as the emphasis was on the likeness instead of the sitter’s position.

Even or, perhaps, especially the animals in British paintings are relaxed and certain of their position – it being the most important in the household as is clear from the dogs and horses one saw in the exhibition.

The curator of “Citizens and Kings 1760 -1830”, whose notes and explanations were, as is common with the Royal Academy, excellent, drew attention to an interesting comparison between royal portraits.

At the start of the period the Continental countries were largely absolutist monarchies with Britain being the only country where the King’s power was circumscribed by Parliament. This, he thought, may well have been the reason why Reynolds painted King George III and Queen Charlotte in far more relaxed poses than his contemporaries painted other monarchs.

Interestingly enough, George IV eschewed that attitude. The famous Lawrence portrait shows him in an almost Continental manner, bestriding his space, full of “empty pomp”, according to the curator, who is clearly not a Whig.

Looking at other portraits, Goya’s Ferdinand VII, for instance, or the various ones of Napoleon, one can see the difference between attitudes very clearly. In many ways, it is not the great imperial splendour of Napoleon or his appearance as conqueror of Europe that is particularly interesting but David’s portrait of him in the study at the end of a long night’s work “for the good of the French people”, as the curator sardonically notes.

Napoleon is always the ultimate romantic hero, despite his less than total love of freedom, but this portrait surpasses all others. He is in uniform as he is about to inspect a regiment, surrounded by charts and documents, including the Code Napoleon, still the basis of French law. The man who is full of pride and is, yet, ready to sacrifice himself for his country. As it happens, he sacrificed the country to his ambitions for it and himself. How very different from the relaxed view of George III and the stiff emptiness of George IV imitating the Continentals.


  1. HM Stanley Says:
  2. Interesting post. I live in the US thus have not seen RA exhibition. Would be interesting to compare British/Continental portraiture to early American republic portraiture.

    Americans were faced with a dilemma, upon independence, regarding how to represent leaders in a "democratic" age. Interestingly, telling from various George Washington portraits(http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/gw/gwexh.htm.), Americans seem to have opted for the arguably less democratic style (Napoleonic) instead of the more "democractic"/decadent one of George III.

    Little wonder then about the impatience of some English Tories..Burke, I believe..lamenting the cries of liberty from ones so embedded to denying liberties---slavery.

  3. Actually, there were a few American pictures, though mostly by artists who were working in Europe. But Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of Washington took pride of place in Room 2. I have to say, it confirms what you say about the less democratic style, though the curator tried hard to prove it otherwise.


  4. dearieme Says:
  5. There's style and there's skill and there's motive. There's one room in the National Portrait Gallery where two paintings stand out as by far the best in the room - a Reynolds and a Ramsay. Both self-portraits.

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