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: A Portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The dispersal of large private collections of art, which has been proceeding at an accelerated pace during the past ten to fifteen years, has brought to the museums of England, and more especially of America, such vast quantities of works of art that art is now available to the public in a degree that could scarcely have been anticipated twenty years ago. The Eumorfopoulos, Morgan, Mellon, Widener, Rockefeller, Kress, Hearst, and Dale collections, to mention but a few which have been released by gift of sale in recent years, have enriched many great museums of Europe and America. Through them art has now become the property of all people and is at their disposal for study or enjoyment whenever the spirit moves them to take advantage of it. Smaller museums have also profited by the dispersal of such collections, either through gifts or the opportunity to acquire in the market works of art once closely held. Members will recall that the Art Institute has recently been the recipient of gifts from both Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Dale who, like other collectors in tune with the trend of the times, have been moved to share their famous collections with the country at large.The Institute has lately acquired, through purchase from the Dunwoody Fund, another work of art formerly in a famous private collection. This is a portrait of Isabella Ross by Sir Henry Raeburn which formed part of the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan at Prince's Gate in London. It was one of two Raeburns acquired by Mr. Morgan during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the first by this artist to enter his collection. His early intention had been to possess one or two examples of all the great schools, and these of the finest possible quality. His natural preference for the eighteenth century schools of England and France, however, led him to concentrate on the art of these two periods. The result was that the Prince's Gate collection was especially rich in fine examples of eighteenth century England and France. The relative tardiness that marked Raeburn's appearance in the Morgan collection was due to the fact that his portraits, known chiefly in Scotland during his own day, had undergone a sort of blackout until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was not until the first winter exhibition of Old Masters held at the Royal Academy in 1870 that his work, together with that of many of his contemporaries, was again brought to light and restored to the position it rightfully occupied in the British school of painting. Raeburn's best portraits had never been well known in London even in his own day, and his reputation outside Scotland was late in being established.The portrait by which he is now represented in the Institute is a good example of his work toward the beginning of his latest period. It was painted in 1801 or 1802, and reflects the softening of style so marked in his final portraits. It is fairly typical in design and lighting, with the subject seated before a tree in the rather somber wooded landscape which appears in many of Raeburn's portraits. Her face is turned toward the spectator but her glance is directed to his right instead of directly at him. She is clothed in an extremely low-cut, high-waisted gown of white satin over which she has wrapped a sheer black lace shawl. Her soft brown hair is arranged in ringlets that fit her head like a cap, and her arms are folded in her lap with the hands barely visible. Her eyes are brown under well-shaped brows, and her nose is pert above a short upper lip.The costume, and the pose of the figure with light falling on it from high on the left, provided a good subject for Raeburn's particular style. He painted in broad planes of color and tone which are here furnished by the variation in flesh and costume. The expanse of white throat, the slightly more creamy bodice of the satin gown, and the right check are in full light. The shawl, with its border and design of denser black, and the dress, in shadow from the knee down, provide the darker planes. The flesh tones are clear and slightly flushed on the part of the face that lies in the light, and greyed on the part that lies in the shadow of the nose and left brow.This color scheme is cool and charming against the soft brown and dull orange of the background. Raeburn was not noted for handling of color, but in this instance he has achieved an unusually happy result. The placing of the figure against the background offers a good example of Raeburn's feeling for design, with the spreading tree behind the head balancing the width of skirt and the line of the curve from waist to knee repeating that of the gently rolling ground beyond.The accusation, so frequently leveled, that Raeburn could not paint a pretty woman is somewhat belied by this portrait. Isabella Ross, who married Dr. George Bell, is not a great beauty but she is an attractive woman. And since Raeburn did not, like his English contemporaries, bestow beauty where there was none, one can feel sure that this is what Mrs. Bell looked like. Like the majority of Raeburn's portraits, it represents an individual. There is character in the face, and the unmistakable Scottish flavor that pervade all the artist's work.The national character of his portraits is partly suggested by his style, which was, especially in the beginning, a broad, square, axe-like style that brought out character as if hewn from stone instead of painted on canvas. It has been suggested that it was Raeburn's manner which made it impossible for him to paint pretty women. In his own day it was also said that he couldn't paint them because there were none in Scotland or because, if there were any, their families couldn't afford to have the young daughters of their houses sit to Raeburn. Only the first of these reasons could have been valid, but it seems more probably that Raeburn, in his passion for directness and realism, preferred male sitters or elderly women, such as Mrs. James Campbell, upon whose features experience had left such compelling marks. As his career progressed, and as his modelling became rounder and his brushstroke less decisive; as he came, some believe, under the influence of Lawrence, he bowed to tradition and invested his feminine sitters with an allure he had hitherto denied them in his absorption in analysis of their characters.Yet even with this capitulation to custom his work retains an individuality that sets it apart from that of his contemporaries. Raeburn was an individualist from the beginning. He had to be. He was almost entirely self-taught. He began his career, moreover, with no national tradition of painting behind him. His chief predecessor, Allan Ramsay, who is represented in the Institute by two portraits in the Georgian Room, had gone to London to achieve fame. Raeburn's talent thus flowered in something approaching an artistic vacuum. With the help of a goldsmith, to whom he was apprenticed at the age of fifteen, an engraver who taught him the use of tools, and a mediocre painter who gave him the barest possible instruction in the use of oil paint and brushes, he launched himself first as a miniature painter and then as a portraitist.Success came quickly if not, at first, abundantly. Scotland, just entering on a period of comparative prosperity after years of strife, felt the need of art. Raeburn was not only in a position to supply it, but to supply it in the manner most admired by his countrymen. His instinct for reality and the paucity of his knowledge concerning the processes of oil painting resulted in a directness of approach which appealed to the Scotch people and which remained one of his most notable characteristics. He did not draw his subject in chalk as so many of his contemporaries did; he drew it directly on the canvas with the brush, and the square, powerful strokes with which he blocked out his figures gave his work a virility and an authenticity quite unusual in the portraits of his day.His career was furthered by his marriage to a wealthy widow in 1778, and his own financial circumstances bettered when he inherited the family lands on the death of his elder brother. The comparative ease of his existence in no way detracted from his professional zeal, however. Some six years after his marriage he felt the need of further enlightenment on his art and spent two years in Italy studying the methods of the old masters. The journey contributed to his growth as an artist, particularly with regard to his use of color. In its essentials his style remained what it had been before—realistic, vigorous, direct. That it satisfied his patrons is evidenced by the number of commissions that poured in upon him.In 1810, Raeburn paid a visit to London, apparently with the intention of settling there. He never did so, and perhaps his fame became more assured by the fact of his remaining in Scotland. There, free from any but remote influences, he continued to paint in the manner most compatible with his character. If his reputation was not so widespread as he may sometimes have wished, it was high enough. His election to the Royal Academy filled a long-felt desire, and the knighthood bestowed upon him by George IV on a visit to Edinburgh in 1822 crowned a full and happy career.Raeburn's stature as a portraitist has been the subject of considerable debate. Placing him precisely is not a matter of great importance. What is important is that he fulfilled admirably the requirements of his art. His portraits are individual, natural, and full of character, as anyone will see by examining the portrait of Isabella Ross. She is a person, not a type, and the observer of today will find her charm as appealing as it must have been to her contemporaries.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of Mrs. George Bell (Isabella Ross) by Sir Henry Raeburn, Scotch, 1756-1823. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "A Portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 35, no. 9 (March, 1946): 42-45.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009