English Figurative Painting
Portrait Art, Genre-Paintings in 18th/19th Century England.

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The Beguiling of Merlin (1874)
Lady Lever Art Gallery, UK.
By Edward Burne-Jones.

For a list of the most important
portraitist, history painters and
landscape artists in oils and
watercolours, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.

English Figure Painting (1700-1900)
History, Styles, Artists


18th Century Master Portraitists
George Romney
Other 18th Century Figurative Painters
Francis Cotes, Joseph Wright of Derby, Tilly Kettle
John Hoppner
John Opie
Benjamin West
John Singleton Copley
Gilbert Stuart
Conversation Pieces
Johann Zoffany
George Stubbs
James Barry
JH Mortimer
Early 19th Century Figurative Painters
Sir Thomas Lawrence
Sir Henry Raeburn
John Constable
19th Century English Culture
Sir David Wilkie
William Mulready
Daniel Maclise
William Blake
Other 19th Century Figurative Artists

Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton
(c.1795) (detail) Private Collection
By George Romney.

Works by England's best figurative
artists can be seen in museums like:
the National Gallery London and
the Tate Britain.

See: Timeline for History of Art.
For styles, see: History of Art.

18th Century Master Portraitists

In the aftermath of eminent English miniaturists such as Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), Isaac Oliver (1568-1617) and Samuel Cooper (1609-1672), the innovative William Hogarth (1697-1764), the 'grand style' portraitist Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and the singular Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) are the three artists who sum up the best of figure-drawing and figure-painting in eighteenth century England, and overshadow the rest of their contemporaries. [Note: The Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay (1713-84) - official portraitist to King George III - is excluded from this comparison.]

George Romney, almost alone, has escaped this partial obscurity. After the death of Gainsborough he was Reynolds's only serious rival as a portrait-painter, and his reputation has survived the vicissitudes of taste to the present day. His pictures have fetched extravagant prices in the auction-room, and his name is often bracketed with those of Reynolds and Gainsborough as the third of a triumvirate of great English portrait-painters. So high a reputation is hardly deserved. His painting has prettiness, charm, a sense of linear pattern and sound direct handling, but none of the qualities which place Reynolds and Gainsborough among the great masters. Yet he was not a derivative painter, and so he rightly deserves to be ranked above the direct followers of Reynolds.

Mrs. Abington (1771)
By Joshua Reynolds.

For a brief survey of the tradition
of drawing from the nude, see:
Female Nudes in Art History (Top 20)
Male Nudes in Art History (Top 10).

For a guide to the best of
modern UK painters (1960-2000),
see Contemporary British Painting.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the Top 300 oils, watercolours
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

See: Famous Painters.

For details of colour pigments
used by 18th century English
figurative painters, see:
Eighteenth Century Colour palette.

George Romney (1734-1802)

Romney was born at Dalton-le-Furness in Lancashire, and at the age of nineteen he was apprenticed by his father to a strolling portrait-painter named Steele. Steele, who is said to have been a pupil of Van Loo, was in many ways not a very satisfactory master, but he was the only master Romney ever had, and it would seem, to judge from the condition of Romney's pictures, that his purely technical training was sound. In 1757, Romney induced Steele to release him from his articles, and for the next five years he practised as an independent painter in Kendal. Here he had plenty of portrait commissions at low prices, and achieved a considerable local fame. But this did not satisfy his ambition, and in 1762 he set out for London to look for fame and fortune, leaving behind him his young wife and children. He only visited them twice in the next thirty-seven years.


Romney was a favourite of fortune, and he achieved success in London almost as easily as he had done at Kendal. He settled in a small studio in Dove Court, and there he carried out a composition of the "Death of Wolfe", which was awarded a prize of fifty guineas by the Society of Arts. This picture, strange as it may seem today, was considered revolutionary in its own time. The subject was thought too modern to be suitable for historical painting, and Romney had committed the further solecism of clothing his figures in the dress of their own day instead of in the costumes of antiquity. Such intolerable vulgarity was too much for the stomachs of art critics and connoisseurs who created such an outcry that the Society of Arts was constrained to reverse its decision, and awarded the prize to Mortimer for a picture of "Edward the Confessor seizing the treasure of his mother", a subject at once noble and antique. The upshot of the whole affair was that Romney received twenty-five guineas conscience money, and conceived a dislike for Reynolds, whom rightly or wrongly he believed to be responsible, which outlasted it. The hostility between the two men persisted, and probably accounts for the fact that Romney never sought nor received academic honours.

In spite of this official rebuff Romney was soon able to rival Reynolds in success if not in genius. 'The town is divided into a Reynolds and a Romney faction, and I am of the Romney faction,' wrote Lord Chancellor Thurlow a few years later, and it cannot be said that his success was altogether undeserved. He was something more than a fashionable portrait-painter, and his inspiration if not very profound was at any rate sincere. Unfortunately, like Reynolds, he had ambitions beyond portrait-painting, and aspired to be an historical painter in the grand manner. In 1764 he again won the Society of Arts prize, and this time their decision was not reversed. In 1773, in company with the miniature-painter Ozias Humphrey, he set out for Italy. He remained there two years, copying Raphael and other masters.

His work did not benefit to the same extent as Reynolds's had done from his stay in Italy, but his style was considerably modified. On his return he entered on the most successful phase of his career. His income is said to have been between £3,000 and £4,000 which, if we bear in mind the comparatively low prices of portraits in those days, gives a measure of his success.

In 1782, he made the acquaintance of Emma Harte (afterwards Lady Hamilton), and became enchanted by her beauty. His romantic attachment to her dominated the remaining years of his active life. Study after study he painted, even refusing commissions that he might have more time for celebrating her beauty. Yet he did not abandon his historical painting. He cooperated in the Shakespeare Gallery of Alderman Boydell, and in 1797 he moved to Hampstead to carry out 'grand designs'. But this grand design was not destined for fulfilment. His mental powers were already failing. By 1799 he had given up painting altogether, and returned to the wife whom he had left thirty-seven years before. He rapidly sank into idiocy, and his heroic wife nursed him to the end with unabated tenderness. He died on 15th November 1802.

The two vices of Romney's art are superficial prettiness and pretentious grandeur. The grandeur was reserved mainly for his historical pictures, the prettiness mars many of his portraits. Pictures like the "Parson's Daughter", and many of the studies of Lady Hamilton, do not rise much above the level of chocolate-box decoration; others, like "Mr. and Mrs. William Lindow" (Tate Gallery, 1396), have a prosaic ordinariness which deserves little more consideration. He never shows the spiritual insight of Gainsborough, nor the superb colour and pictorial inventiveness of Reynolds, but his nature was sympathetic, and given a subject that appealed to him he could often produce a portrait of much charm. The unfinished portrait of himself in the National Portrait Gallery shows him at his best as a character-painter, while the more sentimental side of his work is well represented by the "Lady and Child" (National Gallery, 1667), with its fresh colour, clean paint, and natural posing, but on the whole he is not well represented in the public galleries. His greatest gift was for linear pattern, and he had little grasp of three-dimensional space. In attempting breadth of modelling, he usually only achieved emptiness, but this sometimes leads to a decorative flatness which combines with his linear pattern to give a very pleasing effect. Whatever his faults, he had a personality of his own, and one which can still exercise a seductive charm even as it did in his own day.

Other 18th Century Figurative Painters

To dismiss the remaining painters of portraits, historical and genre subjects as minor painters with a mere catalogue of names and dates would be to give them much less than their due. The general level of portrait-art was exceptionally high, higher perhaps than it has been at any other time in England. The example of Reynolds and Gainsborough, the more spacious times, the wide demand for portraits, the keen interest in the arts among the educated classes, the greater opportunities for education, united to bring into existence a school of figure-painters of which we can be justly proud, and which can fairly bear comparison with foreign schools. Among the lesser-known painters are several who, in general competence, in the painter-like qualities of their work, in sense of character, draughtsmanship, and felicity of arrangement deserve to rank with Romney at least, even if they have not quite the individuality and obvious charm which mark his work. The dominant influence among the portrait-painters was Reynolds, who naturally attracted followers by his personality, his position, and his success, as well as by the fine qualities of his work. The characteristics of later eighteenth-century portraits are an air of dignity and distinction, a rich quality of paint, and a feeling for style which raise them above the purely descriptive painting of the nineteenth century. All these qualities are to be found in Reynolds, and at their best his followers approach very close to him. Strangely, eighteenth century English portraiture bears a resemblance to that in Russia. For more, see: Russian Painting: 18th Century.


Francis Cotes, Joseph Wright of Derby, Tilly Kettle

The finest work of Francis Cotes RA (1725-70), and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) might almost be mistaken for Reynolds, and Tilly Kettle (c.1740-86) sometimes gives a very Reynolds-like look to his pictures, though the quality of his paint is much thinner. Cotes, who died comparatively young, although a close follower of Reynolds, had some personality of his own. His rendering of character is sensitive and his colour-schemes are individual, being cooler than those of Reynolds. Joseph Wright, like Reynolds a pupil of Hudson, was a fine painter, but had not a very distinct individuality, and came under various influences as well as that of Reynolds, sometimes coming nearer to the work of Francis Hayman, or the early Gainsborough. But see his iconic masterpiece An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). Tilly Kettle again had not a very strongly marked personality, and he did little more than absorb some of the surface qualities of Reynolds's art. Like several other painters of this time he spent some years in India, where he found a better market for his work among the servants of the East India Company than he did in England.

John Hoppner

John Hoppner RA (1758-1810), has achieved a more lasting reputation than any other member of Reynolds's school. Though of German parentage he was born in London, and his work is entirely English in style. Educated at the Academy School he early came under the influence of Reynolds, but his work begins to show the decline of the eighteenth-century tradition which went on rapidly in the early years of the nineteenth century. While adopting Reynolds's general style of treatment, he had not the gift of idealism which would have enabled him to harmonize his figures with their artificial backgrounds. His figures of women and children are pretty, but his vision is commonplace, and he has not the grasp of his picture as a whole, which makes the portraits of Reynolds and Gainsborough such satisfying entities. Too often the figures appear to be simply studio studies, to which a background in the fashion of the day has been added, reminding one of a style of photograph now happily out of date, in which the sitter is posed before a painted back-cloth to which it has no relation in lighting or design. Yet his painting has a freshness and spontaneity which give it attractiveness. It cannot be considered great art, but it is a long way removed from the frigid conventionality of the Kneller school at the beginning of the century.

John Opie

John Opie RA (1761-1807), also owed something to Reynolds. Born in Cornwall, his work attracted attention by its vitality while he was still a young man, and he was given the nickname of 'The Cornish Wonder'. His handling is particularly vigorous, and his personality strongly marked, but in colour he inclined to a portentous and gloomy blackness. He is at his best in heads, such as "Portrait of the Painter" (National Gallery), and "Portrait of a Boy" (National Gallery).

Benjamin West

A group of painters from the American colonies worked in England at this time. Of those the best known by name is Benjamin West (1738-1820), Reynolds's successor as President of the Academy, but John Singleton Copley (1737-1815) and Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) were more considerable artists. West, who had worked in Rome, and studied the older masters at first-hand, owed less to Reynolds than many of his contemporaries. The main characteristics of his style were already formed when he came to England in 1763. Besides history painting he painted portraits which have a certain liveliness, and landscapes which are not easily remembered. Raphael Mengs has been suggested as a formative influence on his style. Mengs was in Rome during West's stay there, and it may well be so, but whatever influences formed his style West had not the painterly genius for them to bear much fruit.

John Singleton Copley

Copley, though born in Boston, was of British parentage, and, like West, he had visited Italy before settling in England. At first he practised mainly as a portrait-painter, but later devoted himself chiefly to historical paintings of his own time by which he is chiefly remembered. He was a deservedly successful painter, and was elected a member of the London Royal Academy in 1775. His work is not uninfluenced by Reynolds, but he had a strong personality of his own, and was by no means a mere imitator. A very vigorous, if not a very subtle, draughtsman, he painted with a full brush, and a vigorous trenchant touch, which makes his pictures most heartening and exhilarating to look upon. His historical pictures are not in the 'grand style', but they are full of movement and pageantry. He had a keen eye for the picturesque possibilities of his own age, and he constructed fine designs and handsome colour-schemes. Pictures such as "The Death of Chatham" (National Gallery), "The Death of Major Pierson" (Tate Gallery), "The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar" (Tate Gallery) do for the events of their age what Reynolds did for the individuals. The masters of this type of work have usually been found in modern times among the French, and John Singleton Copley can stand comparison with the best of them.

Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), born at Narragansett, Rhode Island, became the pupil of Benjamin West after graduating at the University of Glasgow. His work, almost entirely confined to portraits, does not show the vices of his master's. It is simple, sincere, and direct, and shows no very strongly marked outside influences. Hardly a creative artist, he was a very sympathetic interpreter of character. In some of his happiest portraits there is perhaps just a hint of Gainsborough, but in others there is a grimmer note. The unobtrusive sincerity and sensitive feeling of his work deserves the highest respect.
One branch of portraiture, the small family group or conversation piece, almost entirely escaped the influence of Reynolds.

Conversation Pieces (Genre Works)

A large number of painters were engaged in producing these little pictures, and they form one of the most attractive aspects of eighteenth-century art. Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Romney all produced work of this class, and even Reynolds himself produced an occasional example of it, as in a semi-humorous group of his friends, and another of a group of members of the Dilettanti Club. It was, however, a type of picture for which Reynolds's gifts did not especially fit him. Keenness of observation, dramatic sense, and a power of easy and unpretentious grouping were the essentials of these pictures which stand at the very opposite end of the scale from the pompous history-paintings. Modest in their art as in their size they present a complete microcosm of eighteenth-century domestic life. Besides the artists already mentioned, J M Laroon (1679-1772), Joseph Highmore (1692-1780), Thomas Patch (d.1774), Joseph Nollekens (1702-48), Francis Hayman (1708-76), Arthur Devis (1711-87), John Downman (1750-1824), Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), Francis Wheatley (1747-1801), and many others worked in this painting genre.

Johann Zoffany

Of these Johann Zoffany stands out as the most important. Though not an Englishman by birth, the character of his work and long residence in England entitle him to be considered a member of the English school. One of the original members of the Royal Academy he was one of the most successful artists of his time, as he remains for us one of the most attractive. His characterization is sharp, and there is in his work something of the vivid life of Hogarth, though without his satire. His and the other conversation pieces of the age have an interest which the other portraits lack, in showing us the sitters in their own natural surroundings. The backgrounds are not simply fanciful scenes, the function of which is merely decorative and suggestive. They are actual rooms and actual landscapes, some of which can still be recognized. Out of the immense variety of Zoffany's work it is not easy to pick on particular examples of special interest, but "Lord Willoughby de Broke with his wife and three children", "The Dutton Family" (playing cards), and "Music Party on the Thames at Fulham" are all fine examples of his vivacious art. Like Hogarth, Zoffany was closely connected with the stage, and portraits of actors and scenes from plays form a large part of his work.

The conversation piece is, of course, nearly allied to genre painting, and some artists produced both types. Francis Wheatley, whose "Cries of London" are so well known, was one. Henry Walton (1746-1813) was another painter of genre subjects, the grace and charm of which recall the great Jean Chardin.

With these painters may be grouped the animaliers and painters of animal and sporting subjects which were popular throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. John Wooton (1668-1765) and James Seymour (1702-52) were early members of a school which reached its highest level in the work of George Stubbs (1724-1806).

George Stubbs

Born in Liverpool, George Stubbs studied anatomy at York, and visited Italy in 1754, but he did not make the mistake of trying to imitate Italian art. If the Italians influenced him at all it was in developing his draughtsmanship and fine sense of form. Much of his life was spent in studying the anatomy of the horse, and his book on the subject brought him an international scientific reputation. A second book, on the comparative anatomy of the horse and man, was left unfinished at his death. Most of Stubbs's pictures are small in scale, delicately and precisely painted, with a charming feeling for atmosphere in his landscape backgrounds.

Although the horse was the main study of his life, the little portrait-figures are equally well and sensitively painted, and he would occupy a high place among the painters of conversation pieces on these alone. He was never, like many of the sporting painters, content with a technical description of a horse amounting to little more than a coloured diagram. For all his scientific knowledge of equine anatomy he always sees with an artist's eye and produces a picture which is as charming aesthetically as it is accurate anatomically. Stubbs was as successful when working on a large scale as on a small, and his largest piece of equestrian art, "Hambletonian beating Diamond at Newmarket", measures thirteen feet seven inches by eight feet two inches. Another picture, almost as large, of Hambletonian with a groom and stable boy is probably his masterpiece. It has a largeness of vision and a magnificence of action which are truly Michelangelesque, and it is far more genuinely in the 'grand style' than the self-conscious efforts of the history-painters. No words of praise can be too high for it. In draughtsmanship, design, and handling of paint it is one of the greatest pictures in English art. From the very simplest material and without the slightest straining after effect he has produced a picture which can stand comparison with the works of the great masters.

No other sporting painter was the equal of Stubbs, but Benjamin Marshall (1767-1835) carried on the tradition of Stubbs's work, and painted many hunting and racing scenes which have artistic merit.

Animals played a big part in the work of George Morland (1763-1804), though he was not a sporting painter. He was essentially the painter of the farmyard, the inn, and the life of the countryside. Morland may be described as a man of genius, but his gifts were largely wasted through his dissolute life. He could see and he could paint, but much of his work was hurriedly and carelessly produced to be given to innkeepers as the price of his board and drink. His view of country-folk is rather maudlin and sentimental, and he gives to his characters the same look of large-eyed tousle-headed innocence as Wheatley in his "Cries of London". But whatever his faults, he could paint the stable and the agricultural horse as few have done, with a rich impasto of paint and a liveliness of touch which belie the drunkard's hand.

In the strongest contrast to such artists as these last stand the painters of bombastic history-pictures. Instead of drawing their inspiration from nature, they based their art on the style which second-rate Italian artists had evolved from the later work of Michelangelo. This was where the great influence of Reynolds had its most disastrous effect, for it gave encouragement to painters who had neither the imagination nor the technical equipment to undertake such work. How little feeling for great decorative work he had himself is shown by his few historical pictures and his painted window in New College Chapel. Reynolds in this matter was merely the child of his age. Critics and connoisseurs who had none of his genius extolled these academic inanities, and even the downright Hogarth himself had hankerings after that over-blown siren of the arts, the 'grand style'. The work of most of the history-painters is flattered by oblivion. Benjamin West's performances were academic and lifeless, Hogarth's and Romney's were little better.

James Barry

James Barry (1741-1806), a highly talented Irishman, was one of the least unsuccessful. Like so many artists of his time he visited Italy, where he contracted the virus of the 'grand style', but he was a capable painter. His pictures were mainly of classical and Biblical subjects, but he sometimes adventured into the history of his own day. Taking warning perhaps from the fate of Romney he painted a picture of the death of Wolfe in which all the figures were nude. But he was no more successful in winning the approval of Reynolds, whose delicate sense of propriety in the matter of dress was again offended, and the vexed question of what General Wolfe should have worn to die in remains unsolved. A little self-portrait by Barry in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows what powers he had to squander.

JH Mortimer

JH Mortimer ARA (1741-89), the subject of a delightful little portrait by Richard Wilson, was another who achieved some reputation by historical painting, and Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) belongs to the same school. Born in Zurich, Fuseli came to London in 1770 with a letter of introduction to Reynolds, and subsequently studied art in Italy for eight years, returning to England in 1778 to paint vast canvases of flying and straddling nudes. He contributed to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, and produced forty-seven large paintings illustrative of Paradise Lost. These turgid pictures would be of little importance were it not for the fact that they seem to have had some effect on the genius of Fuseli's friend, William Blake. Fuseli, however, was a man of intellect, and his comments on his fellow-painters were always pithy and to the point. See also his masterpiece - The Nightmare (1781, Detroit Institute of Arts). The drawings of the sculptor, John Flaxman (1755-1826), belong in some ways to this school, though they were mainly based on Greek vase-painting, and they also have the interest of having influenced Blake. But the paintings of modern history by JS Copley, already discussed, were worth all these 'grand designs' put together.


Several minor branches of eighteenth-century figure-painting remain to be considered. Miniature portrait painting, which suffered in the general decline at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, again rose to importance towards the close of the century. Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-84), an Irish painter, who also painted portraits in oil with a distinctive style, was among the earliest of the eighteenth century miniaturists of note, and bridges the gap between the seventeenth and later eighteenth centuries. One of the best miniaturists of the age was undoubtedly Richard Cosway (1740-1821) - almost certainly the greatest master at the close of the century, but Ozias Humphrey (1742-1810), and many others produced most delicate and charming work. John Russell (1745-1806), Francis Cotes, and several others did admirable work in crayon and pastel, and towards the end of the century a vogue for small portrait-drawings in plumbago or lead pencil came in. Many of these are fascinating little pictures.


Early 19th Century Figurative Painters

In portraiture the tradition of the eighteenth century survived well into the nineteenth, and painters such as James Northcote (1746-1831), John Jackson (1778-1831), and Sir William Beechey (1753-1839) were direct followers of the Reynolds school. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), who succeeded West as President of the Royal Academy in 1820, although belonging to the same general tradition, was an artist of more individuality, and in his hands this tradition began to be transformed into something more definitely characteristic of the nineteenth century.

Sir Thomas Lawrence

Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) began his career as a crayon-portraitist, and was already a practising artist when he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1787. Four years later he was elected an associate of the Academy, and a full member in 1794. He was a facile executant, and he always aimed at producing a picture which was something more than a mere copy of his model. His work is full of vitality, and never at its worst degenerates into the tailor's dummy style of art current at the beginning of the eighteenth century with Charles Jervas and other members of the Kneller school. But in spite of these virtues he has a somewhat gaudy and meretricious flashiness, and the brilliance of his technique leads him into superficial displays of fireworks. He is the typical painter of the regency period, and his work reflects the glittering vulgarity of the world he painted, the world of Byron, Brummell, and the Brighton Pavilion. A superficial polish plays over his portraits, black-lashed eyes gleam glassily from his canvases and figures are relieved against vermilion curtains or backgrounds of Byronic gloom shot with smouldering reds and blues. Everywhere is surface polish and the air of Wardour Street romanticism, which were becoming common features of much painting at this time both in England and France. Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850), who succeeded Lawrence as President of the Royal Academy, had a similar polish, but he had not the vitality and 'devil' which make Sir Thomas Lawrence so arresting in spite of his superficiality.

Sir Henry Raeburn

Head and shoulders above these stands Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), a Scottish artist who deserves far better than Romney to be classed with Reynolds and Gainsborough. Raeburn was born at Stockbridge, near Edinburgh, and was apprenticed at first to a goldsmith, Gilliland, who introduced him to the portrait-painter David Martin. He began his professional career as a painter of miniatures, a somewhat odd beginning in view of the character of his mature work. About 1778 he came to London and consulted Reynolds about his painting. The advice Reynolds gave him was to go to Italy and study Michelangelo, and accordingly to Italy in 1785 he went, but there is no evidence in his work to show that he carried out the rest of Reynolds's advice. No trace of Michelangelo and the 'grand manner' can be found anywhere in his painting, and it has been suggested that what he actually studied most in Italy was the portrait by Velazquez of Pope Innocent IV in the Vatican. It is difficult otherwise to find any source for his developed style. In his own time he stands quite alone, and except for the costumes of his sitters and the conventional backgrounds which were the fashion, there is nothing to connect him with his contemporaries. His early works are tight in handling and without much distinction, and in no way foreshadow the breadth and trenchancy of his later style.

On his return from Italy Raeburn settled in Edinburgh, and there most of his best work was produced, and he has left as vivid and illuminating a record of society in the Scottish capital as did Holbein of the Court of Henry VIII or Van Dyck of the Court of Charles I. Even now his work is inadequately represented in English galleries, and it is necessary to go to the Scottish National Gallery to appreciate the full scope of his genius. He is to be seen at his best in portraits of Highland chieftains in national costume, of old Scottish ladies, and of judges and other legal characters; but whatever his subject there is the same penetrating sense of character, the same breadth of vision, and the same sure, trenchant touch.

Raeburn's natural place in art is with Velasquez, Manet, and John Singer Sargent, his affinity with Sargent being particularly close. Sometimes, as in the portrait of John Home in the National Portrait Gallery, the system of his brushwork forestalls Sargent's with an amazingly prophetic exactitude. The frankness of his vision does not as a rule extend to his backgrounds, where the conventions of his day still reign, and this prevents many of his portraits having the actuality of a Velasquez or a Manet. If he had lived fifty years later, when the last traces of eighteenth-century artificiality had disappeared, we should have had in him one of the greatest of naturalistic portrait-painters.

The tendency to a more literal and naturalistic vision was rapidly growing in the early years of the century, and the work of another Scottish portrait-painter, Sir John Watson Gordon, carried the naturalistic outlook a stage further, but he had not Raeburn's genius and largeness of vision. Generally speaking, the portrait art of the nineteenth century as compared with that of the eighteenth shows a loss of style, and is literal and uninspired in treatment. Naturalism in the hands of men of genius can give aesthetically significant results, but with lesser men it degenerates too often into a mere description of externals without vitality or style, and the later portraiture of the century, with a few notable exceptions, is sadly lacking in artistic distinction of any kind.

John Constable

Although widely renowned as a landscape artist, John Constable (1776-1837) also produced a number of portraits (eg. Maria Bicknell, 1816; Tate Gallery) and other figurative works. See also: English Landscape Painting.

Another notable Victorian portraitist was GF Watts (1817-1904), the talented painter and sculptor who is often associated with 19th century Symbolism.

19th Century Culture in England

Literalism of presentment combined with poverty of imagination marks much of the other figure work of this time, and the polished glossiness already mentioned in Lawrence's portraits becomes a common feature in the work of the painters of historical and domestic genre. Pictures of domestic, historical, and romantic subjects, and illustrations of popular novels and poems, form a large part of the work of the period, and they are usually sentimental, literary, and superficial in treatment. They reflect a general change in taste which the circumstances of the time fostered. Lending libraries were now becoming common, and the facilities for reading which they afforded stimulated the popularity of the novel, and encouraged the spread of new ideas which had originated in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The religious revival which had begun with Methodism, led to a growth of interest in the lives of the poorer and less fortunate sections of the community which the literature of the day reflected. The poetry of Scott and Byron expressed a new romanticism of a rather artificial and rhetorical type, which was echoed in painting by a tawdry medievalism and orientalism. Knights and ladies, sultans and odalisques, Italian banditti and Greek maidens, became the stock-in-trade of the romantic painter, as village schoolmasters, clergymen, charitable ladies, choir-boys, and rustic maids were of the painters of village life. In all this the painter's inspiration was literature not life, with the result that too often his pictures were literal translations of words into paint, rather than independent plastic conceptions as were Hogarth's, which in spite of their literary subject-matter were visually conceived.

Illustrative work of this type was not an entirely new thing in England, but like most other work of its time was the development of a strain already existing in the eighteenth century. Highmore, with his artificial illustrations to Richardson's Pamela, and Wheatley with his "Cries of London", are both forerunners of the sentimental anecdote-painter of the nineteenth century. Most of the painters of this school are now almost forgotten except by students of the period, but a few have a claim to permanent remembrance, foremost among them Sir David Wilkie.

Sir David Wilkie

David Wilkie (1785-1841), having been trained at the Trustees' Academy, Edinburgh, and the Royal Academy Schools, began to attract attention in London when he was about twenty-one with pictures of village life, such as "The Village Politicians", "The Blind Fiddler" (Tate Gallery), and "Blind Man's Buff" (National Gallery). In these he shows an acute observation of rustic types, and a considerable sense of humour, though they are trivial in sentiment and based on rather conventional composition plans. The Dutch painters of low life are his inspiration, and he may not unfairly be ranked with such a painter as Van Ostade, in spite of the sentimental vein in his work which belongs entirely to his own age. He had much skill in oil painting, and in the setting of his mise en scene, but he had none of the deep understanding and sincerity of Jean-Francois Millet in his treatment of the life of the people. In later life after a visit to Spain he completely changed his style under the influence of Velazquez and other Spanish painters, and his later pictures, of which "The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of the Congregation", now in the Tate Gallery, is an example, are bold in handling, rather dark in tone, and melodramatically conceived. Wilkie probably did more than anyone else to popularize the rustic subject-picture and his influence even affected Turner, who produced a few rather inept imitations of his style. Thomas Webster (1800-86) painted subjects of similar character and was perhaps the best of his followers, and Thomas Faed (1826-1900) with less humour and more sentimentality carried on this tradition to the end of the century.

William Mulready

William Mulready (1786-1863) painted some pictures in a vein similar to Wilkie's as well as others of a pseudo-poetic character. He was a most careful craftsman, and at his best a fine colourist, but his subjects are usually trivial, and there is a complete absence of character in his female faces. He was in some ways a forerunner of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. "Choosing the Wedding Dress", possibly his best picture, has a brilliance of colour, a crystalline texture of paint, and a minuteness of finish which are quite in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, but the absence of character in the faces, and lack of vividly observed gesture or decorative quality emphasize the distinction between the Pre-Raphaelites and their immediate predecessors.

Daniel Maclise

In some ways Daniel Maclise (1806-70), an Irish artist of outstanding ability as a draughtsman, belongs to the same school. His subjects were frequently Shakespearean, and "Malvolio and the Countess" and "The Play Scene" from Hamlet are typical. His colour and tone are somewhat heavy and his conceptions theatrical, but he had a fertile fancy, and his drawings of eminent men of his time for Fraser's Magazine are at their best worthy of comparison with Ingres. The last years of his life were spent in carrying out two large wall-paintings in the Houses of Parliament, "The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher" and "The Death of Nelson". These paintings show his characteristic faults of dark tone and lack of colour, but they are carried out with a splendid competence of draughtsmanship and execution which show to great advantage in comparison with later and more immediately attractive wall-paintings in the same place.

The Creative Genius of William Blake

But in the realm of creative figurative painting of the late 18th and early 19th century, William Blake (1757-1827) stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries. For biographical details, see William Blake.

Other 19th Century Figurative Artists

CR Leslie, EM Ward, GS Newton

CR Leslie (1794-1859), EM Ward (1816-79), and GS Newton (1794-1835) were competent illustrative painters of historical and genre subjects. "Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman" and "Sancho Panza and the Duchess" by Leslie, "Yorick and the Grisette" by Newton, and "The South Sea Bubble" by Ward, are typical specimens of their work. Leslie, an American by birth, was perhaps the most vital of the three, his technique having a masculine quality rather rare among painters of this school. But in common with the others his faces, especially those of women, are characterless, a fashionable insipid type of beauty, dark-eyed, oval-faced, with small mouth and chin, doing duty for all characters. William Powell Frith (1819-1909), whose "Derby Day" and "Railway Station" were Victorian sensations, carried on these literal renderings of artificial conceptions into a later day, and with him may be classed AL Egg (1816-63), whose subjects of domestic drama in a Victorian setting now seem to have more comedy than pathos.

John Phillip, Frederick Hurlstone

John Phillip (1816-67) and Frederick Yeates Hurlstone (1800-69) were two painters of genre subjects whose work shows Spanish influence. Phillip began by developing the later style of his fellow-countryman Wilkie. Later he closely studied the art of Velasquez and painted many Spanish scenes. Hurlstone had a vigour of execution and fine quality of paint rare among the painters of subject-pictures in his day, qualities which are well exemplified in his "Scene from Gil Blas" (Tate Gallery), a magnificent piece of painting without any of the glossy insipidity of his contemporaries.

Sir Edwin Landseer

With the painters of genre subjects a few animal-painters may be considered, for their work shows very similar tendencies. Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73) was the most prominent member of a school which introduced sentimental anecdotes into animal-pictures, and imputed human motives and emotions to horses and dogs. The titles of his pictures, such as 'High Life', 'Low Life', 'The Monarch of the Glen', and 'Uncle Tom and his Wife for Sale' (a picture of two pugs), indicate his mental attitude sufficiently clearly. His powers as a draughtsman and painter were very considerable, but his attention was too much concentrated on the emotional pretext of his pictures and the exact rendering of the various textures of fur and hair, and his work shows a great falling-off from the high standard set by George Stubbs. JF Herring (1795-1865), whose "Scanty Meal", a painting of horses' heads, is well known, was also inclined to stress the sentimental side of his subjects. On a lower level still was Sidney Cooper (1803-1902), whose mechanical renderings of cattle and sheep derived remotely from Cuyp.

J Ward

J Ward (1769-1859) also painted cattle, but he brought to his work a vigour of execution and a power of imagination which make his pictures a most welcome exception among these uninspired painters. His painting is closely based on Rubens and his cattle are usually placed in grand landscape settings, as in "Gordale Scar", which, with the "Harlech Castle" (National Gallery) and "Landscape with Cattle" (Tate Gallery), is among the most enlivening productions of the time.

Thomas Stothard

A few painters of imaginative and fanciful subjects deserve mention. Among these is Thomas Stothard (1755-1834), who is best known by his painting of the "Canterbury Pilgrims" (Tate Gallery), and by small, engraved book-illustrations of cupids and the like. He had a pretty fancy but no real power of imagination, and "Cupids preparing for the Chase" (Tate Gallery) and "Cupid bound by Nymphs" (Tate Gallery), are typical of his style.

William Etty

The subject-matter of William Etty (1787-1849) is similar to that of Stothard, and he had no more genuine imagination and a less charming fancy, but he was a born painter, which Stothard was not, and a colourist of delicacy and splendour. As a painter of the nude he is almost without rival among English artists, and most of his pictures are really no more than studies from the nude model to which he has given some fanciful pretext. In face and figure his nymphs and goddesses belong to the oval-faced, corset-waisted, fashionable type of his time, but the pearly quality of his flesh and the magnificence of his colour and handling redeem his faults, as in the "Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm" (National Gallery), which is a favourable specimen of his art. William Hilton (1786-1839) treated subjects of the same kind, but without Etty's genius.

BR Haydon

BR Haydon (1786-1846) made a really serious effort to treat great subjects worthily. He had high ambitions, and struggled with great historical subjects hampered by lack of means and recognition. Great hopes built on the opportunity for decorative work on the new Houses of Parliament were disappointed, and a few years later a tragic career ended in suicide. In spite of faults his painting had a masculine vigour and seriousness of purpose which command the greatest respect. Another painter of real imaginative power was David Scott (1806-49), who, like Haydon, was disappointed in his hope of getting work in the Houses of Parliament. His comparatively early death cut short what promised to be a brilliant career.

19th Century Neoclassical Subject Painters

The virtuoso figurative subject painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was one of the most popular artists of the neo-classical movement in Victorian art, with a range of female nudes in Roman settings, like The Tepidarium (1881). Fell abruptly out of fashion on his death; but 'rediscovered' in the 1980s. Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) combined opulently coloured classical paintings with highly influential sculptures. Leighton, along with the lesser known classicist Albert Moore (1841-93), also exemplified the creative philosophy of the 19th century Aestheticism movement. For a slight comparison, see the English romantic painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Pre-Raphaelites Movement

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-96), and Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) - and later including Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) - was the most important artist group of the Victorian age in England. It stimulated renewed interest in the decorative Arts and Crafts Movement (1862-1914), and others, and gave a boost to traditional styles of figurative painting.


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