Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the tragic muse (Sarah Kemble Siddons) by Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1789
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

The allegorical portrait

Allegorical portraits allowed artists to portray women in roles outside their normally restricted occupations, as well as to take on the attributes of the Goddess or other figure represented. Artists could indulge in a greater degree of idealisation and choose settings and props suitable for the situation. In doing this they moved the portrait genre closer to that of history painting.

While allegory flattered the status of the upper classes, it could also be used to present images of women like actresses, who were less favoured by wealth or breeding, and help to make them socially acceptable. Sarah Siddons, England’s leading tragic actress, confessed herself ‘an ambitious candidate for fame’, anxious to meet ‘all the good, the wise, the talented, the rank and fashion of the age’ at Reynolds’s parties. Rather than portray Sarah Siddons in one of her stage roles, Reynolds pulls out all the stops in casting her as The Tragic Muse. Melpomene was one of nine Muses, daughters of Jupiter, who were the goddesses of creative inspiration in poetry, song and the other arts.
Siddons is seated on an enormous throne, supported by stormy clouds and set against an ominously dark sky, her sumptuous dress spread out to command the stage. Beside her are two figures associated with Tragedy: on the right ‘Terror’, for which Reynolds used a drawing of his own face, and on the left ‘Pity’. While Siddon’s idealised features gaze rapturously upwards in a somewhat aloof manner, there is a sense in which her image ‘speaks’ to us: her raised hand, suggestive of oratory, rests against the cup of ‘Terror’, while the other hand falls away beside the dagger of ‘Pity’.
(This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication.)
Compare this to Stuart's portrait of Sarah Siddons (entry July 23), and one has a glimpse into a striking metamorphosis.
For more on Sir Joshua Reynolds and his portrait by GS see entries from March 10/11 2009. Stuart was only 29 at the time he painted the portrait of Reynolds.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

update on the portrait of Cyrus Blake attributed to Gilbert Stuart

My sleuthful colleague wrote to "" to ask for information about the provenance of this painting of Admiral Cyrus Blake of (it is thought) Boston.
(see entry July 20, 2009)

She replied:
The family of this estate is keeping information very private. I am trying to pry out the full lineage. I can say the Blake family cross is to Blair, which is the family the portrait was handed down and consigned to us.That's all I can say for right now. After receiving your note, I have been doing additional research and found links that may indicate we are on the wrong track with Gilbert Stuart attribution. Clearly the portrait is top-notch for the era. And frankly, as frustrating as all heck. Kathleen
to which my esteemed colleague replied:
Dear Kathleen -

I can appreciate your frustration! May I suggest it is by another notable artist - a protege of Stuart's - James Frothingham?

If in fact Cyrus Blake was from the Boston area -
and given the period attire - you still have a valuable portrait on your hands!

Good luck in your investigation!

All good wishes.
The portrait did not sell at auction.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Famed siblings of the English stage John Philip Kemble and sister Sarah ~ portraits by Gilbert Stuart

Sarah Siddons by Gilbert Stuart 1787
~~National Portrait Gallery London
Contemplative and sensitive, pictured here against a stormy sky, Sarah Kemble Siddons was renowned as a great actress and famous for her portrayal of the Shakespearean character Lady MacBeth, a character she made her own.
Gilbert Stuart painted Sarah and her brother John when he lived in London, at this time about 31-32 years old. He had already achieved fame with the unveiling of the portrait "The Skater" in the 1782 Royal Academy exhibition, and with his growing prominance and prosperity, was now living in high style, in a grand house.
From Lawrence Park:

Mrs. Sarah Siddons
Born at Breson in Wales, daughter of Roger and Sarah (Ward) Kemble; and sister of John Philip Kemble. In 1773 she married William Siddons (died 1808), a bad actor, but a good critic of his wife's performances. Sarah, whose father was an actor and manager of a strolling company, went on the stage from her earliest days, unsuccessfully at first, even after her engagement at Drury Lane in 1775, where she played "Portia" to Garrick's "Shylock." In 1776-1777 the tide began to turn and she played to crowded houses at York, Manchester and Liverpool, then for four years at Bristol and Bath, 1778-1782, where Walter Scott saw her in his boyhood. In 1782 she returned to London and took Drury Lane and the town by storm. Henceforth she was the acknowledged Queen of the Stage. Johnson, Reynolds, Burke, Windham and Sheridan were at her feet. Reynolds designed her dresses for Lady Macbeth and painted her as the "Tragic Muse." In 1803 she removed to Covent Garden and in 1812 she retired from the stage.

John Philip Kemble as Richard III 1786 by Gilbert Stuart

Younger brother of Sarah, John Philip Kemble posed for Stuart for a theatrical portrait, allowing a more complicated facial expression than was usual in the common portrait of a sitter, meant for posterity. Here Kemble is portrayed as Richard III, with furrowed brow and malicious sideways look.

From Lawrence Park:

John Philip Kemble
The tragic actor; son of Roger and Sarah (Ward) Kemble; and brother of Charles Kemble and Mrs. Sarah Siddons. He was educated at the English Catholic College at Douai, where Talma was his fellow-student. After appearing with much success in an English itinerant company, he founded his fame as a great tragedian by his appearance at Drury Lane as "Hamlet" in 1783. He became manager of Drury Lane; made a Continental tour to study the French and Spanish theatres; was manager of Covent Garden from 1802 to 1808; wrote the tragedy "Belisarius" and the opera "Lodoiska" and adapted many old dramas to the modern stage. Retired in 1817, went to the Continent for his health and died in Lausanne.
hey, I like my new title/graphics. neat.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This painting, to be soon sold at auction, is supposedly a Gilbert Stuart, since 2002, claims to be the leading auction-related Web site for fine art, antiques and collectibles. On July 25th, with a starting bid of $5000, the portrait above, said to be by Gilbert Stuart with a date of 1800 ~ of "Cyrus Blake" with 'original frame' ~ can be bought.
The painting is not signed nor dated, which is a common Stuart characteristic.
I note that the portrait is very similar to that of Leven Luckett, seen in the entry just before this one.

However, is it really an orginal Stuart? How the attribution was obtained is not given, nor are any other reasons provided for this claim, for example, a listing in Lawrence Park or Mason; nor is the provenance given. An attribution by one of the reigning experts would certainly add authenticity to this attribution, however without it, one must question whether the portrait has the "Gilbert Stuart signature all over it."

Stuart's signature style, besides the broad, free, spontaneous brushstrokes characteristic of the clothing... & what he is most famed for... is the translucent highlighted skin tones of the face, glowing with the soul and personality of the sitter.

A close-up of Blake's face seems to shows Stuart techniques, such as the nostrils and the cheek, but the range of the hues overall seems limited, the approach more conservative, without evidence of the Stuartistic genius.
Does the skin in this portrait have a life of its own, is it radiant, does it glow with the mind and soul of the sitter, overall does the portrait dazzle with strokes of swift spontaneity and spectacular radiant skin tones? Compare this portrait with others on this site.
I think it most probable that this portrait is not by Stuart, but possibly by the same talented painter of Levin Luckett? Is it ethical to sell a painting, glibly claiming it to be a Stuart original because of attribution by the owner....

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Levin was a handsome young man; was his portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart?

What do you think? How old is the sitter? Are there any telltale clues?
I received a mail from Kelly Graziano, accompanied by this wonderful portrait of a family ancestor. His name is Leven Luckett.

I came across your website/blog today and thought I would send the enclosed photos. The portrait is of my husbands ancestor, Leven Luckett (b. 1804 in Loudon County, Virginia). I believe he ended up in Louisiana and that his son died in the civil war. I'm not 100% sure of the facts though.
The portrait is not signed or dated -- though it's a bit dirty and a few details have gotten lost in all the darkness surrounding the figure. So, what do you think? Could it be a Gilbert Stuart? Thanks!

my answer;
Hi Kelly,
One thing that I learned about attributing, is that it becomes easier and more convincing, the more the facts/times/places add up to a reasonable meeting that might have occurred between artist and sitter. But first, thanks for writing!
First, we figure about what age Luckett might be in the portrait, I figure around....30? Possible a tad younger, but also possibly a tad older. That puts the year of the sitting at about 1834 if he was born in 1804. Stuart died in 1828 in Boston.... That, I think, makes it fairly questionable, or, unlikely that it is by Stuart. The experts of course would have the last say, but I think that it is logical that your portrait is not by Stuart.
Do you have any other stories about Leven?

Thanks for writing again,

a brief story of the Luckett family provided by Kelly:
Samuel Luckett~ “Gentleman & pioneer of the Luckett family in America. The first evidence of this Samuel being in Maryland was in 1673 when he was recorded as being a citizen of Portobacco, Charles County, Maryland. From an inventory of his estate after his death showing the number of rooms in his mansion house and the articles of furniture contained in each room, it is indicative that he enjoyed a life of ease and affluence common to the Manorial life of a Maryland gentleman planter. He received thirty pounds of tobacco for his participation in the Nanticoke Indian War in the Fall of 1678.”
Grandson Colonel William Luckett born c. 1711 and wife Charity Middleton had ten children, Leven Luckett I was the youngest. He inherited the estate called “Luckett’s Merry Midnight” which was located in Frederick County and later settled in Loudon County, Virginia where he married Letitia Hooe Peyton, daughter of Colonel Francis Peyton and Frances Dade. Frances Dade was a direct descendant of the Princess Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of King Edward I, King of England.
Dr. Leven Luckett (the sitter in the portrait), son of Leven Luckett I and Letitia, was born in Virginia in 1804. He graduated in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania and settled in Rapides Parish, Louisiana about 1830. He was on the original Board of Trustees for Louisiana State University when the university was organized in Rapides Parish prior to the Civil War. His plantation was called “Ashbourne” and was located on the Red River about ten miles from the present town of Alexandria. He married Jane Adelaine Crain, daughter of Colonel Robert Alexander Crain and Elizabeth Wood. Elizabeth Wood was a direct descendant of Governor Robert Brooke of Maryland (Royal descent), Richard Smith (Attorney General of Maryland), General James John Mackall, and many dozens of other prominent Marylanders who grant colonial service to their descendants.

Kelly's answer to my note;
Thanks for your insight, but we're still holding out hope! I believe Levin must have had to be 24 if he was painted by Stuart in the last year of the artist's life. Not probably, but possible.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day; did you know Gilbert Stuart painted the first FIVE PRESIDENTS !

A sampling, there are other different versions...

George Washington *President from 1789-1797*
Gilbert Stuart 1795, Frick Collection
John Adams *President from 1797-1801*
Gilbert Stuart c.1800-1815, National Gallery of Art DC
Thomas Jefferson *President from 1801-1809*
Gilbert Stuart c.1805-1821, National Portrait Gallery
James Madison *President from 1809-1817*
Gilbert Stuart 1804, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
James Monroe *President from 1817-1825*
Gilbert Stuart 1817, Pennsylvania Academy of Arts

Friday, July 3, 2009

An (easy) telltale clue, to identify a Gilbert Stuart portrait!

As mentioned in the last entry, Jane Stuart is quoted as saying, "In his work there is no appearance of labor, but everything that he did showed force and energy--so long as he kept to the head. When that was completed his enthusiasm seems to have abated. With some notable exceptions, the other parts of his pictures were painted but indifferently..." Besides drapery, surely Gilbert Stuart could have spent more time on the... HANDS ! But in fact, can this rather sloppy negligence, next to a sublime likeness of a face in the same portrait, be considered part of his signature (which he left only very seldom)? 'When asked why he did not put his name or initials, to mark his pictures, he said, "I mark them all over." ' (William Dunlap p218).
detail hand from Samuel Meeker

another example of sloppy hands

Mrs. Edward Stow
by Gilbert Stuart 1802-3 Columbus Museum

From Lawrence Park:

Mrs. Edward Stow (1771-1835)
Anna Brewer, daughter of John and Sarah (Brewer) Peck of Boston. In 1793 she married Edward Stow.
Bordentown, New Jersey, 1802-3. Panel 29 1/8 x 23 1/2 inches. She is shown half-length, seated, three-quarters left, on a sofa covered with red leather and studded with brass-headed nails. Her brown eyes are directed to the spectator, and her brown hair is dressed high on her head with an ornament of flowers, and ringlets on her forehead and temples. She wears a high-waisted, low-necked, short-sleeved, white gown, with a white fichu. A pearl necklace and pearl drop-ear-rings. A parti-colored shawl is falling from her shoulder; her right hand rests on arm of sofa, interlocking fingers with the left hand. In the background is a red curtain, drawn back at left, showing blue sky and clouds.

Note that Anna's husband Edward Stow was also painted by GS; finding this particular portrait, and its remarkable similarities to the portrait of Samuel Meeker, convinced me that I had finally found the right artist! [see entries 2/27/09 & 3/6/09] Note that Gibby also painted Edward's hands with the utmost of indifference.... although the portrait of his wife shows more than the average of interesting detail outside of the face. The Stows and Stuarts were good friends.

Why did the master not paint hands, or draperies, with the same exquisite care as the face? One primary reason is that speed meant more income; Stuart was always struggling with debt. For one thing, he had 12 children!

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