Monday, April 14, 2008

Stooping to Conquer

The last time we were at the Met to see The Age of Rembrandt exhibition, while walking from part 1 to part 2, I stopped dead in my tracks when I walked through the room and saw the portrait of Elizabeth Farren by Sir Thomas Lawrence (above, from 1790). Born April 13, 1769, Lawrence is one of those little-known artists that just captivates me beyond all reason. Like your favorite indie band that nobody else has heard of but you listen to endlessly, Lawrence is that little-known treasure I’ve made it my mission to broadcast to the world. The rendering of the fabrics of Ms. Farren, an Irish actress who starred in Oliver Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer, proves that Lawrence, along with Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, belonged in the upper echelon of portraitists of the early nineteenth century in England. Despite great critical and financial success, Lawrence always looked for new worlds to conquer, sadly stooping himself from his high place among portraitists.

Lawrence grew up as the sixteenth and last child of an innkeeper and his wife. As guests passed through the inn, young Thomas would entertain them by performing passages of Milton’s poetry and drawing their portraits. That love of Milton may have come into play when he painted Satan and Beelzebub (above, from 1795-1797), which depicts a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a hugely popular subject among the Romantics. Lawrence tried to capitalize on that popularity with this scene, which combines his beautiful technique in depicting the human form along with his love of grand history painting, another style he longed to do instead of portraiture. Henry Fuseli, who had been painting similar scenes since 1790, accused Lawrence of plagiarism in his copying of Fuseli’s dramatic take on Milton’s underworld. Lawrence soon abandoned his dream of “escaping” portraiture, leaving us with only these hints at would he could have done elsewhere.

The crowned heads of Europe and even the pope lined up to be painted by Lawrence. When he returned from one successful sojourn to Europe in 1820, he found himself the new president of the Royal Academy after the death of Benjamin West. By all accounts, Lawrence was a brilliant conversationalist and a charismatic personality, charming all his sitters in a way that perhaps only John Singer Sargent matched a century later in terms of personal attributes and artistic talent. Paintings such as Lady Mary Templetown and Her Eldest Son (above, from 1802) show so many different sides of Lawrence: the aspiring landscapist in the beautiful background, the closet classicist putting Lady Templeton in the role of sylvan goddess, and secret Romantic in his dramatic staging that literally puts mother and son in a spotlight. Throughout his life, Lawrence struggled with success, almost as profligate with his money as he was with his talent. Perhaps the factor that brings me back to Lawrence again and again isn’t as much the works themselves, which are amazing, but the vast potential always just beneath the surface.

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