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1796 Portraiture after Reynolds

Four years after the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the former Royal Academy President’s legacy remained powerful. The Academy’s 1796 exhibition drew an unprecedented 1,512 visitors on its opening day, its most anticipated exhibit being a portrait of the society beauty, Lady Charlotte Campbell (Fig. 1). Painted by the recently elected Academician, John Hoppner, the portrait depicted the daughter of Elizabeth Gunning, the late Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll, also a celebrated society beauty, whom Reynolds had painted to great acclaim, exhibiting her portrait at the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1760. Hoppner painted Charlotte Campbell in the mythological guise of Aurora, drawing upon Reynolds’ mobilisation of the “grand style” in portraiture to impart his aristocratic sitters with “the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity”.1 Hoppner’s portrait thereby alluded to two important pedigrees or legacies—that of a mother and daughter celebrated in London society for their remarkable beauty, and of a British portrait tradition which had achieved distinction through Reynolds and was being continued by his successor, Hoppner. In addition to the portrait of Lady Charlotte Campbell, Hoppner exhibited ten other portraits, including full-length depictions of Mrs Michael Angelo Taylor as Miranda from The Tempest and of the Prince of Wales wearing the Garter robes.

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Hoppner’s exhibits should not only be seen in relation to the portraiture of his predecessor, but also as works enmeshed within a strong rivalry between contemporary portrait painters, in particular William Beechey and Thomas Lawrence, who exhibited ten and eight works respectively in 1796, and who—like Hoppner—became Academicians in the years following Reynolds’ death (Lawrence in 1794; Beechey in 1798). All three specialised in society portraiture and had obtained royal favour: Hoppner serving as Portrait Painter to the Prince of Wales after Reynolds’ death; Beechey as Portraitist to Queen Charlotte; and Lawrence as Principal-Painter in Ordinary to the King. Visiting the exhibition in advance of its public opening, George III noted the dominance of the three artists in the field of portraiture (as he had also done in the previous year), an observation which was reinforced in the exhibition’s reviews.2 Critics encouraged exhibition goers to draw comparisons between the three artists’ works, The Monthly Mirror drawing their attention to the respective qualities evident in their exhibited portraits: Beechey was described as having “fewer eccentricities than his competitors—he never distorts his figures for the sake of extravagant attitude—he is less fantastic in his design, and less exuberant in manner; in short, he has more nature than the other two.” Lawrence, on the other hand, “delights to be brilliant, and Hoppner to be fine, one loses himself in gloss, the other in drapery.”3 By 1796, the artists themselves were well aware that they were embroiled in a competition for recognition as Britain’s foremost portrait painter. Thus, an argument broke out between Beechey and Hoppner (who was on the Hanging Committee that year), when canvases had to be withdrawn due to lack of space. All three parties set their prices with an eye to what the other charged, and Hoppner was accused of puffing his work in the press (to the detriment of Lawrence), while Hoppner himself suspected Beechey of doing the same to him.4

While portraiture habitually dominated the Academy’s annual display—and was criticised for doing so—the 1796 exhibition included a couple of important features that may have worked to modify perceptions of the genre, and practices of viewing it. For the first time, a list of sitters was appended to the exhibition catalogue, allowing visitors to easily identify the subjects of the dozens of portraits that they encountered in the Great Room—a move which John Williams (aka Anthony Pasquin) noted, “prevents all that buzzing and fidgeting about the room now, which has been so much practised heretofore, in the ardent wish to know who or what such a lady or gentleman is.”5 Arguably, this served to focus attention more fully on the painterly qualities of the portraits rather than their subject matter, something which was further encouraged by the catalogue itself, which addressed visitors with a motto from Cicero’s De Oratore asserting that everybody was able to distinguish between good and bad in matters of art, even without any knowledge of its theories.6 Second, the display included a small canvas by Robert Smirke, titled The Conquest (Fig. 2), which offered an intriguing comment on many of the portraits which surrounded it. Depicting a scene in a portrait painter’s studio, Smirke’s painting (which was based on a scene in Samuel Foote’s play Taste) visualises the effects of a comically unattractive female sitter’s metamorphosis in paint, as the artist falls in love with his own allegorised creation. Although Lady Charlotte Campbell did not, by all accounts, require such a radical transfiguration in terms of physical beauty in order to attain the role of Aurora, Hoppner himself somewhat approximated Smirke’s fictional artist in speaking “in raptures” of the beauty, if not of his canvas (which he struggled to execute), then certainly of his sitter.7 Meanwhile, a number of reviews indicated an implicit scepticism regarding the artifice of mythological portraiture, and of Hoppner’s apparent difficulties in reconciling the corporeal presence of his sitters with the more ethereal conceptualisations that such portraiture involved. While lamenting the loss of Reynolds, critics also condemned the practice of “servile imitation” that served to maintain (but simultaneously to debase) his legacy.8

The contrivances of allegorical portraiture and of artistic emulation thus came under the spotlight during the exhibition while, by contrast, Beechey’s canvases were singled out for their originality, simplicity, and harmonious colouring. Allegorical portraiture was falling out of fashion, and a more direct engagement with the sitter and with the process of painting, unmediated by poetic conceptions or artistic imitation, was singled out as offering a new direction for British portrait practice. For some critics, this direction was posited upon “more nature” and less artifice, for others, it was the inculcation of originality in place of an “indiscriminate imitation” of artistic precedents that promised the laurels of distinction to Britain’s portrait painters.9As if to underscore the positive—and distinctive—qualities of contemporary British portraiture’s naturalistic trend, the French émigré painter, Jean-Laurent Mosnier’s portrait of Lady Callander and her Son was condemned for its hard finish and “stiff and awkward” handling, a telling contrast, it seems, to the more painterly and individualised approaches of his British counterparts.

  1. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, Robert R. Wark (ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 140.↩︎

  2. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), vol. 2, 527, 339.↩︎

  3. The Monthly Mirror, II (May 1796), 29.↩︎

  4. Pasquin hints at Hoppner’s influence in the press reception of the exhibition, see Anthony Pasquin [John Williams], A Critical Guide to the Royal Academy for 1796 (London, 1796), 25–26. Hoppner, indeed, had previously written art criticism for The Morning Post. Hoppner himself suspected Beechey of puffing in his own favour against Hoppner, see Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 2, 554.↩︎

  5. Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Royal Academy for 1796.↩︎

  6. “Omnes tacito quodam sensu, sine ulla arte aut ratione, quæ sint in artibus, et in picturis et in signis, et in aliis operibus, recta ac prava dijudicant.”↩︎

  7. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol. 2, 496.↩︎

  8. The Morning Chronicle, 25 April 1796; Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Royal Academy for 1796, 26.↩︎

  9. The Monthly Mirror, II (May 1796), 29; Pasquin, A Critical Guide to the Royal Academy for 1796, 25↩︎

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