British Portraits

From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, most painters in Britain concentrated their energies on the portrait. The rise of Anglicanism dating from the reign of Henry VIII led to the end of commissions for religious subjects, and most of the other genres—landscape, still life, history painting, etc.—were little practiced, at least until the eighteenth century.
While developing a specific style stressing the hieratic and a pallid, even stony stiffness, British artists were nonetheless in direct contact with influential artists from abroad, and notably from Northern Europe. The most significant of these "imported" portraitists was the German Hans Holbein (1497–1543), represented in the Louvre by a handsome collection of five portraits—three dating from his highly regarded English period (1526–43)—and a major set of drawings. Also to be seen in the Louvre is a remarkable Portrait of Edward VI, King of England by Guillim Scrots, also from Northern Europe and active in England mainly after the death of Holbein. The museum in Besançon has a superb portrait of a man dressed in red which is attributed to Scrots and in which the flawless precision of his drawing and the almost burning intensity of his palette are bound about with the consummate rigidity of sixteenth-century England. The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) saw a remarkable flowering of miniature portraits marked by a new subtlety and preciosity. The Louvre possesses several examples of these sophisticated pieces, among them works by Isaac Oliver (1565–1617) and most notably a 2007 acquisition in the form of a small female portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (ca. 1547–1619), the supreme master of the genre.
The arrival in London in 1632 of Antwerp painter Antoon Van Dyck (1599–1641) had a manifest influence on the evolution of the English portrait. The style he developed in England, a remarkable amalgam of the grandiose and the relaxed, is to be seen in portraits whose studious propriety is accompanied by a closeness to the subject previously all but unknown in that country. France's collections are particularly well endowed with Van Dycks, but it is in the Louvre that we find his masterpiece Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt (ca. 1638). After Van Dyck's death the Dutch-born painter Peter Lely (1618–1680) shaped his own earthy version of the style. Lely is well represented in France – in the museums in Valenciennes and Rennes, for example – and most notably in the Louvre, with the highly typical Portrait of a Man (ca. 1670).
The eighteenth century saw England make its most original contribution to the genre in the form of the conversation piece. A hotbed of Enlightenment thinking, English society brought to its zenith the dual art of socializing and sophisticated yet informal discussion. During the 1720s Philippe Mercier (1689–1760) and William Hogarth (1697–1764) painted the first group portraits of families, friends and cognoscenti engaged in conversation. The Louvre collection reflects this specifically English phenomenon with characteristic works by such masters as Mercier, Hogarth (a small, unfinished genre scene acquired in 2008), Arthur Devis (1712–1787) and Johann Zoffany (1733–1810). Nor should we omit a remarkable little masterpiece by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788): presumably a portrait of the artist and his young wife, Conversation in a Park deftly combines conversation and gardens, those two English passions of the time.
During the second half of the century English portraitists showed themselves ever more intent on achieving recognition for the dignity of their art. The most ambitious—and talented—of them was certainly Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792). First president of the recently founded Royal Academy, where he gave remarkable lectures on the European masters, he developed a new style that allied formal daring and technical freedom with a constant emphasis on propriety and references to the great models of the past: the Italian Renaissance, Baroque painting—above all Van Dyck—and even the art of antiquity. Reynolds is relatively well represented in France, even if public collections still lack one of the full-length portraits in which all his brio is brought to bear. The Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris offers the engagingly martial Portrait of Captain Torryn (1758) and the museum in Montpellier and the Louvre each have one of the charming child portraits that were a Reynolds specialty: respectively The Infant Samuel at Prayer (1777) and Portrait of Master Hare (1788), donated by the Rothschild family in 1905. This example led to other imposingly interiorized portraits, among them those by Allan Ramsay (1713–1784) and George Romney (1734–1802) in the Louvre, and by Francis Cotes (1726–1770) in the Musée Cognac-Jay in Paris.
Reynolds' most talented rival was Thomas Gainsborough, the greater vitality of whose portraits is doubtless attributable to his practice of landscapes and the genre scenes of which he was also a master. The Louvre is fortunate to possess Portrait of Lady Alston (ca. 1760): one of his most ambitious portraits and very much in the Van Dyck style, it was donated by the Rothschild family in 1947.
In the early 1790s a new generation of portraitists began applying Reynolds' spirited style in a more fluid but less experimental register. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) and Sir Henry Raeburn (1756–1823) conquered Europe with a new kind of sweepingly brushed works whose subjects were given supple, more "natural" poses in direct, harmonious relationship with their outdoor settings. Lawrence especially enjoyed a brilliant international career that had a direct influence on the emergence of the Romantic School, notably in France, where the young Delacroix was a great admirer of his work. It was at this time that British art began to gain recognition across the Channel. In the Paris of the Belle Epoque no major private collection was complete without at least one fashionably British eighteenth-century portrait, with a predilection for the ardent dignity of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lawrence: examples are still to be found, for example, in the Jacquemart-André and Cognac-Jay museums in Paris and the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne. France's museums succeeded in acquiring only some of the jewels of these private collections, notably from the best-endowed of all in terms of British art, that of Camille Groult (1837–1908), to which the Louvre owes two portraits by Lawrence.
The first phase of substantial enrichment of French public collections came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and focused mainly on overtly ambitious, often proto-Romantic works from the period 1770–1830. However it was not until the 1970s that acquisition policies really homed in on English art, with a marked interest in artists—Ramsay, Zoffany, Mercier, Hogarth, and others—less well known in France at the time. The Louvre and the museum in Bordeaux were the most active institutions in this field.
In 1915 France's museums were the beneficiaries of a lavish gift from the English collector Sir Edmund Davis (1862–1939). Mainly comprising works by British artists of the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries—among them Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) and George Frederic Watts (1817–1904)—the donation included several portraits, one of them the hieratic Portrait of Isabella Heugh painted in 1872 by Millais, the first of the Pre-Raphaelites. Representative of the same movement is Burne-Jones's Lady Frances Balfour (1880), acquired by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes in 1991.
Guillaume Faroult