Sit back and relax, it is time for a short history lesson, compliments of the Yale Center for British Art’s “The Worlds of Francis Wheatley” exhibit:
We are in Georgian England, and realistic portraits are key. A precursor to photography, they are a way to preserve your image in the annals of history, provided you are important or rich enough to be remembered. The size and quality of the portrait reflects your reputation, and they are of utmost import in preserving your sense of pride, heritage and, yes, your ego.
If such an important symbol needs to be had, Francis Wheatley is your man.
Born in London in 1747, Wheatley showed great promise as an artist from his start in the Royal Academy. He excelled in capturing expressions, making his subjects look in equal parts elegant and glamorous.
Because of this talent, he proved immediately popular. His portraits were in demand among citizens of a certain means. He was especially adept at portraying even those of middle class as distinguished gentlemen or gentlewomen, depicting them in sophisticated hunting tableaus or tea party scenes.
They looked good, they loved Wheatley, and, well, Wheatley loved them back.
As for Wheatley’s love, let’s just say that it was not solely confined to his clients. He cavorted extravagantly with the artistic crowd, probably gambled and was perhaps most famous for being quite the ladies’ man.
His liberal spending habits and female fixation, of course, eventually landed him in trouble: He ended up running to Ireland with one of his mistresses, away from her husband and Wheatley’s creditors.
According to the exhibit, Wheatley did quite well in Ireland, endearing himself to Irish society with his glamorous paintings of people and landscapes. He eventually returned to London, triumphant, where he continued his work until his death in 1801. He was said to still be in debt when he died.
Why am I telling you this? Because in order to understand Francis Wheatley’s work, it is important to understand his life.
Wheatley distinguishes himself from his fellow Georgian artists because he infuses his oversized personality and passions into his art.
There was not usually much room for creativity in Georgian painting because artists were confined to the difficult task of mimicking life. Wheatley transcends his constraints, partially because of his immense talent, and partially because he was one to bend the rules. His pieces are realistic, yes, yet dynamic, often portraying emotions and relationships that other artists could only hint at.
His subjects, often arranged in seemingly whimsical tableaus, are deliberate in arrangement.
In “Mrs. Bentley and Her Children,” we see the subtle reach of Mrs. Bentley trying to steady her fidgety daughter, while her other daughter shows the initial scowl of jealousy. Even though Mrs. Bentley appears to be the epitome of serene beauty with her elegant dress, her posture and twist at the edge of her mouth hints at her fraying patience.
Wheatley’s female subjects indeed have a sensual independence. Their glances are coy and mysterious; their postures elegant and teasing. This trend is especially evident in Wheatley’s most successful collection, called “The Cries of London” — In his depictions of daily middle-class activities, his female subjects are the most lovingly crafted, showing graceful detail and exuding the feminine charm that Wheatley so loved in life.
The net effect is a series of paintings that not only captures historical figures, but describe their stories as no written tale can.
The pieces reflect how Wheatley lived his life: They are extravagant and luscious, energetic and teasing, and, above all, show a joie de vivre that mocks a stiff society’s propriety.