Monday, February 23, 2015

Painting of the Day: A Portrait by Frederick Cruickshank

Portrait of a Lady Seated in an Armchair
Frederick Cruickshank
England, 1830
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Frederick Cruickshank (1800-1868) was an English painter who is often confused with the other notable Cruikshanks (George, Isaac and Isaac Robert), however, there’s no obvious relationship and the names are spelled differently.

While the “K with no C” Cruikshanks are best known for their sociopolitical, satirical and theatrical drawings, Cruickshank (with an extra C) was known for his portraiture. This portrait of an anonymous subject is an excellent example of Frederick Cruickshank’s work. Here, we see a rather morose woman in a room adorned with musical accoutrement. The sitter’s identity has never been deduced, but there are some curious clues in the composition which hint to her situation. There’s an abandoned pair of men’s gloves on the floor—perhaps a suggestion that she has been cast aside by a husband or lover. Furthermore, a prominent bust on a pedestal resembles any of a series of busts made by Sir Francis Chantrey of engineer and steam engine innovator, James Watt. Does this mean that this woman is a member of the Watt family? Is she a relative from the Campbell family?

We will never know who she is. We know only that she is surrounded by beautiful things arranged in an intentionally peculiar way. An expensive guitar and piano indicate wealth, while the cut flowers on the mantel are arranged in an ice-bucket—a signature of an individual style.

And, that’s the beauty of this Cruickshank’s work. He was known to be able to say quite a lot about his sitters without identifying them by name and by only including unique attributes.

This work of watercolor and body color was painted in 183o and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831 and Cruickshank was careful not to reveal the identity of the sitter by calling the picture simply, “Portrait of a Lady Seated in an Armchair.” 

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