Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Painting of the Day: Portrait of Henry Kirke White, 1805

Henry Kirke White
Unknown Artist
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Through the late Eighteenth Century, watercolor artists worked primarily on topographic scenes on vellum, and portraits on ivory. These media proved to be expensive and were the stuff of the upper classes. However, by the Nineteenth Century, artists began perfecting watercolor techniques and found that the medium was well-suited to paper and card. The use of less expensive materials allowed for a broader group of patrons to commission and collect watercolor paintings.

A distinctive style of watercolor portraiture developed, often echoing the growing trend of portraits in profile. However, artists had not accounted for the instability of paper. Whereas earlier miniature watercolors on vellum or ivory retained their color, those on paper tended to yellow and/or deteriorate with time. We can see that with this example from 1805. The background of the portrait was never intended to have that ochre color, and was originally a bright, crisp white. This also effects the pigmentation of the colors which, when new, were quite vivid and bright.

The portrait miniature depicts Henry Kirke White (1785-1806) in profile. The trend of profile portraits began in the late 1770s when archaeological discoveries of Roman sites at Herculaneum and Pompeii elicited a new taste for Neo-classicism. Furthermore, Johann Kaspar Lavater published a celebrated tome, “Essays on Physiognomy” wherein he proposed that one could divine a person’s character by concentrating on his or her main profile features.

Henry Kirke White was a promising English poet whose death at an early age (in 1806, a year after the portrait was painted) was thought to have deprived the world of a great talent.

The artist is unknown.

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