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painting by Sir henry raeburnHe wasn’t called Sir Henry for nothing. He was a fantastic portrait painter whose painterly style was more fluid than his contemporaries which gives his work a more relatable look to viewers today. A superb technician who I’m sure made his subjects look better than they actually did, which is a key attribute for portrait artists.

Sir Henry Raeburn FRSE RSA (4 March 1756 – 8 July 1823) was a Scottish portrait painter, the country’s first significant portraitist since the Union to remain based in Scotland. He served as Portrait Painter to His Majesty in Scotland.

He was born the son of a manufacturer in Stockbridge, a former village now within the city of Edinburgh. Orphaned, he was supported by his older brother and placed in Heriot’s Hospital, where he received an education. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, and various pieces of jewellery, mourning rings and the like, adorned with minute drawings on ivory by his hand, still exist. Soon he took to the production of carefully finished portrait miniatures; meeting with success and patronage, he extended his practice to oil painting, at which he was self-taught. The goldsmith watched the progress of his pupil with interest, and introduced him to David Martin, who had been the favourite assistant of Allan Ramsay the Latter, and was now the leading portrait painter in Edinburgh. Raeburn was especially aided by the loan of portraits to copy. Soon he had gained sufficient skill to make him decide to devote himself exclusively to painting.

In his early twenties, he was asked to paint the portrait of a young lady whom he had previously observed and admired when he was sketching from nature in the fields. Anne was the daughter of Peter Edgar of Bridgelands, and widow of Count Leslie. Fascinated by the handsome and intellectual young artist, she became his wife within a month, bringing him an ample fortune. The acquisition of wealth did not affect his enthusiasm or his industry, but spurred him on to acquire a thorough knowledge of his craft. It was usual for artists to visit Italy, and Raeburn set off with his wife. In London he was kindly received by Sir Joshua Reynolds the president of the Royal Academy, who advised him on what to study in Rome, especially recommending the works of Michelangelo, and gave Raeburn many valuable letters of introduction for Italy. In Rome he met his fellow Scot Gavin HamiltonPompeo Girolamo Batoni and Byers, an antique dealer whose advice proved particularly useful, especially the recommendation that “he should never copy an object from memory, but, from the principal figure to the minutest accessory, have it placed before him.” After two years of study in Italy he returned to Edinburgh in 1787, and began a successful career as a portrait painter.

Raeburn had all the essential qualities of a popular and successful portrait painter. He was able to produce a telling and forcible likeness; his work is distinguished by powerful characterisation, stark realism, dramatic and unusual lighting effects, and swift and broad handling of the most resolute sort. David Wilkie recorded that, while travelling in Spain and studying the works of Diego Velázquez, the brushwork reminded him constantly of the “square touch” of Raeburn.

Raeburn was unusual amongst many of his contemporaries, in the extent of his philosophy of painting everything directly from life. This attitude partly explains the often coarse modelling and clashing colour combinations he employed, in contrast to the more refined style of Thomas Gainsborough. However these qualities and those mentioned above anticipate many of the later developments in painting of the nineteenth century from romanticism to Impressionism.

Sir Henry Raeburn died in St Bernard’s House, Stockbridge, Edinburgh. His memorial is in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Edinburgh.