His eyes are wide. His outfit is perfect — all black with a splash of white. He oozes ambition, but nervousness is an inimitable part of the mix. He is 18 and on the brink of taking on an overwhelming, unforgiving world that promises either fame beyond measure or a spot in the gutter.
Basically, he’s one of us.
Thomas Lawrence’s Self-Portrait is one of the most arresting paintings in “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance,” an exhibition that opens this weekend at the Yale Center for British Art. A skilled portraitist who came to define the British art world in the early nineteenth century, Lawrence immortalized the key figures of his era. Aristocrats, soldiers, a Pope — anyone and everyone relevant made it to his canvases.
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The exhibition, a collaboration between the Center and the National Portrait Gallery in London, explores multiple phases of Lawrence’s meteoric rise, from humble sketches to a portrait of George IV. Divided into sections, it explores Lawrence’s development chronologically.
Unfortunately, the all-too-straightforward arrangement of the works means that the most appealing pieces of the exhibition are sacrificed on the altar of organization. Throughout my tour, the brochure proved to be just as useful for hiding yawns as it was for improving my less-than-impressive knowledge of the Regency art world. The overdone, luxurious style, so enticing when one is given only tastes of it, can become suffocating in excess.
Still, no piece in Lawrence’s ouevre is completely standard, perhaps because the artist was largely untrained. He channeled his creativity into vast swathes of blue and white and unexpected touches in otherwise traditional portraits. One rendition of a society lady in the guise of idealized and vapid beauty also contains a brilliant peacock; bright highlights in paintings of male subjects and crimson on fingertips make his subjects almost vibrate. Not even paintings of fussy royals were conformist — his much-feted portrait of Queen Charlotte is grandiose, but also frank. Her face is tired, her hair gray.
A few quick glances are really all one needs to note and admire Lawrences innovations. But what really merits more attention are the simpler pieces the curators have been wise to include.
Many of Lawrence’s sketches, often chalk on canvas, are breathtaking. An almost ghostly portrait of Richard Westall captures his friend’s irresistible cheeky, youthful vigor. Though colorful compositions and six-foot gilded frames beckon from every other wall, one simply cannot tear oneself away: a painting of confidante and erstwhile mistress Isabella Wolff makes one gasp; a portrait of another mistress and his illegitimate son is almost angelic. This is when one can see his soul, the component that made this painter an artist.
Lawrence was precocious from the start. He began to support his Bristol-based family with his artwork at age 11. By 18, he moved to London and become an unstoppable force, exhibiting at the Royal Academy to in 1790 to great acclaim.
With forays into historical painting and a royal commission to paint the victors of Waterloo, Lawrence slowly but surely came to dominate art in Britain. His reputation preceded him around Europe and the Americas as well — multiple aristocrats across the continent joined the ranks of his wealthy clientele.
By 1820, Lawrence was the President of the Royal Academy. The poor boy from Bristol made good, pushed forth by energy, skill and determination.
Yes, the exhibition can be oppressive, even dull. Yes, Lawrence’s work is a far cry from our current obsession with pieces so avant-garde their own creators sometimes seem incapable of explaining them. But a visit is a must, if only for those few sketches that stare out at you, vivid as the people you see every day.