Sir Thomas Lawrence Arrives at Yale

Opening today, February 24, 2011: Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art until June 5, 2011.

Kristine and Jo Manning both saw the exhibition in its first venue at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  Victoria hopes to be there in a few days...and I will report on my visit.  You can read our previous posts on this blog on 10/20/10, 1/7-8-9-10/11, and 2/2/11.  We find Sir Thomas to be a fascinating subject and the exhibition equally so.

Thomas Lawrence, self-portrait from 1788, right, was born in Bristol in 1769. He was a child prodigy and by age 10, when his family moved to Bath, he supported then with his drawings in pastels.  He moved to London at age 18 and was soon hailed as an up and coming talented successor to Sir Joshua Reynolds, then Britain's leading portraitist.

One of his fine portraits, of a friend's wife, Mary Hamilton, is shown in the exhibition, and makes one eager for more of the early pastels. But clients were eager for portraits in oils, and Lawrence excelled here too. He drew Mary Hamilton in pencil, red and black chalk in 1789. The British Museum, which owns the work, writes, "This important drawing of Mary Hamilton is arguably the most beautiful female portrait of its type remaining in this country."  A detail of the drawing was used as the cover for a 2008 exhibition at the British Museum The Intimate Portrait, below.

Lawrence's portrait of Queen Charlotte,  wife of George III, brought him fame and eventually fortune. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, the canvas was praised for its detail and its fine brushwork.

The stunning portrait of actress Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, exhibited at the RA in 1790, is one of the exhibition posters offered for purchase.  For information on the Yale exhibition, the catalogue, posters and more, click here.   Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829) began her London stage career in 1777, appearing in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. She became the object of Lord Derby's affections, and after his first wife died, Farren married him in 1797. She thus retired from the theatre and became a countess, wife of a prominent Whig member of the House of Lords. They were parents of three children.

Jonathan Jones, reviewing the exhibition as shown in London, wrote in The Guardian: “Lawrence is a painter who triumphed in his lifetime, yet was forgotten afterwards. Why was he neglected? The question echoes through this extremely interesting exhibition... It is because he associated with the wrong royal... Raddled and bloated and unpopular, George IV looks out of Lawrence's Wallace Collection masterpiece as if he knows full well that in centuries to come, people will joke that ‘there are pieces of lemon peel floating in the Thames that would make a better monarch’."

But Lawrence's relationship with the Prince Regent, later George IV, was lucrative and certainly added to his fame. The Regent sent Lawrence around Europe to paint the leaders of the allied victory over Napoleon. The paintings hang in Windsor Castle, though many copies executed in Lawrence's studio, can be seen in palaces, mansions and museums worldwide.

The Duke of Wellington was the real hero of the  battle, but many, including a coalition of European leaders contributed to the long-sought defeat of Napoleon. Lawrence painted the Duke a number of times, including here on the back of Copenhagen, the horse who carried him throughout the day-long Battle of Waterloo.

Victoria has long adored this painting, from the collection of the Chicago Art Institute. As a child, she often stood in front of Mrs.Jens Wolff and wondered what made this elegant lady so sad. The portrait was commissioned in 1802 or 03 by the sister of Mrs. Wolff and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1815.  Isabella Wolff was the wife of the Danish Consul in London; they divorced in 1813. She is portrayed as the
Erythraean Sibyl (similar to the Sistine Chapel version) and she gazes at a book of engravings by Michelangelo. Lawrence and Isabella Wolff may have been romantically involved for some years, though why it took the artist a dozen years to complete the portrait is a good question. They continued to write to one another until her death.

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance will be on display at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT,  until June 5, 2011.  We will report  again after our visit. For more information on the Yale Center for British Art, click here.

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