Portraits in the Age of Revolution: Citizens and Kings

Citizens and Kings

Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760 - 1830

3 February - 20 April 2007

The Royal Academy of Arts

By Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London

With temperatures plummeting in London this weekend, I reposed to the Royal Academy for warmth and found myself engrossed in the Citizens and Kings exhibition currently on show. Skipping past the obtrusively placed book store ostentatiously selling the catalogue and other relevant books on various themes around the exhibition, it seems to me that it takes up more and more space, obstructing one's path to the entrance of the exhibition, more so every time I visit. Entering the exhibition one is introduced with a selection of portraits of George IV (Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1822), Pope Pius VII (Lawrence, 1819), Ferdinand VII (Francisco de Goya, c.1815), Charles IV (Juan Adan Morlan, 1797), Napoleon I (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806), Marie-Antoinette (Louis-Simon Boizot, 1751), Louis XVI (Antoine-Francois Callet, 1789) and Catherine II (Fedot Ivanovick Shubin, 1771). It acts as introduction by means of a written text that perhaps explains their inclusion together more successfully than the works themselves do: that a portrait aims to 'provide a recognisable likeness and to function as an art object. Thus it can capture an historical moment, enshrine the sitter's personal achievements, encapsulate the cultural attitudes of its time, and reflect the ambitions and stylistic imperatives of the artist.'

As with the remainder of the exhibition, I found that the introduction to each room and its theme was fascinating (amongst others: Rulers; The Status Portrait: Before, During and After the Revolutions; The Artist: Image and Self-Image; The Portrait after the Antique; The Family Portrait; Nature and Grace: The Figure in the Landscape) but that it was more often the placement of certain particular works of art alongside one another that was more so and that provoked a stronger dialogue. For example, in the entrance, it was the placement of a sculpted bust alongside the painted portrait that inspired thought of how artists chose the best means by which to paint their patron and the sitter. It also indicates that no artistic record is to be truly trusted, as each differs in their recording of the sitter's face for reasons of flattery, perhaps, or the limitations of their medium. Shubin's painted portrait of Catherine II, Empress of Russia, presents the queen in all her grand regalia. She is a plain-faced queen but this lack is made up by the luscious, heavy gold and red surrounds of sweeping curtains and dominating throne. Her enormous ivory silk skirt embroidered with the patterning of her golden crest dwarfs her two delicately booted feet. She placidly holds a mitre and sceptre whilst a fur-rimmed cloak with delicate gold thread seems to holds her upright. This particularly communicative portrait is in total contrast to the sculpted image of Catherine to the right of the painting, by Vigilius Erikson from 1765: a simple wreath of laurels sits firmly beneath a simple tiara crown upon Catherine's head. Her smile is gentle, her face softened and, replacing the rather unengaging painted expression, is here one of warmth. Her long hair falls in tendrils around the base of her bare neck and shoulders. Sculpted portraiture seems a much simpler means by which to express the essence of a person's character, more so than attempting to include the trappings of symbolism. Granted, perhaps the bare essentials of the sculpted portrait may seem to detract from the high status of the sitter but Catherine is certainly easier to approach formed from marble. For posterity's sake, the sculpture 'provides a recognisable likeness' and 'functions as an art object' and I therefore think the sculpted form here is more successful than the painted because sculpture has the freedom to represent a personality without said trappings of symbolism.

Of note in the second room was a wonderful portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1767) painted when Franklin was living in London acting as spokesperson for the cause of the American colonies. Behind him rests a bronze bust of Sir Isaac Newton and books and papers litter his desk beside which he sits, thumb resting ponderingly on his chin, index finger pointing to his left, his reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose. What stands out immediately in this room is the discrepancy between the painterly styles of the Americans (John Singleton Copley) and French (for example, Claude-Andre Deseine) and the English (Sir Joshua Reynolds); the latter of whom has a looser quality and darker handling of palette in comparison to the two former, whose styles are smoother and hold a luminous clarity far exceeding that of the more 'realistic' Briton. An interesting dialogue is initiated between Jacques-Louis David's Robertine Tourteau, Marquisee d'Orvilliers (1790) and Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun's The Comtesse de la Chatre (1790). David's Robertine is placed within a stark nondescript mustard gold background, her forearms are strong, she is proud and gallant, despite sitting quietly, in comparison to the feminine delicateness of the Comtesse, who sits coyly on the chaise longue looking out at us. Both women are to be effected by the Revolution in France and it seems very clear that Robertine is to be the victor and survivor of the two.

Room three looks at the Enlightenment and it is not so much a particular style of paiting or portraiture that defines these works but more so the status of the sitters: Hume, Goethe, Buffon, amongst others. Again, it is the work of Reynolds that stands out for its total stylistic discrepancy with the other paintings. It is the stormy skies, the soft fluttery brushwork, the yellowed brown palette and the yellow tint that really indicates how very different his portraits were at this period in comparison to those of his contemporaries.

The artists' self-images, in room four, I didn't find terribly interesting, bar the rather famous painting by Johan Zoffany of The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771 - 72), which, because women were not allowed in the life-drawing classes and this particular scene is set within a life-drawing classroom, the two female members of the RA (Angelica Kaufman and Mary Moser) are shown in portraits hung to the right of the classroom.

In the subsequent room, Portrait After the Antique, it was David's Death of Marat (c.1794) - a copy of the original, I might add - that stood out but what perplexed me was why and how the paintings shown within this room (three of them) were chosen to signify those that looked back at the antique. It notes alongside the David that Marat lies in the 'attitude of the deposed Christ' and it is a 'secular Pieta' but, as far as my learning extends, the period in which Christ lived was certainly not that which we would define as the 'Antique' and this lead me to question the definition of these works under this particular theme. The sculptures spoke for themselves, the portraits executed in typical 'Roman' imperial style, but the paintings' association to this theme seemed a leap.

The Family focus of room six (The Family Portrait) is charming with the paintings a more effective means by which to express the family unit more so than the singular depiction of the figure of a child or a mother.

James Barry's Burke and Barry in the Characters of Ullyses and a Companion Fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus (c.1776) in room seven (The Allegorical Portrait) has a wonderful story attached to it: Barry was a reluctant member of the RA as he had been encouraged to accept the membership by his patron, Edmund Burke, portrayed here as Ulysses. The terror-stricken, perspiring face of Barry speaks loudly of the Catholic artist's confrontation with a British Protestant establishment and of being led into danger on a political, personal and professional level.

Rooms eight and nine (Nature and Grace and Restoration) were of interest but the works spoke less strongly and with less dialogue between each other than in the preceding rooms. For a very meaty and weighty exhibition, this one is just the right size to maintain the viewer's interest, unlike so many at the RA, which tend to entirely inundate one. The pieces are well chosen and thoughtfully hung to bring out alternative dialogues than those being introduced at the entrance to each of the rooms. These themes in themselves are extremely informative of the years 1760 - 1830, during which the works were created, and I perhaps would have paid them more attention had mine not been deviated by the more enticing whispered conversations taking place between the works themselves. Thankfully, I stopped off in the book shop of the way out and took home a tomely catalogue, which I now have all the time in the world to tip in to.