Whenever I think of the National Portrait Gallery in London, I remember those fantastic characters from the Tudor Dynasty. The Tudor portraits, some of them copies of paintings by more famous artists, such as Holbein, were definitely the crown jewels of the esteemed institution; however, their artistic merits were overshadowed or overwhelmed by historical values and societal trappings - stiff fabrics and ornate jewels, etc. Though the characters did emerge under these heavy armors, they were often aloof, demanding respect, love, fear, etc., rather than engaging the viewers.
For personal interactions, I opt for two modern works - one was created in 1820 and the other 1911. Interestingly, both subjects of the portraits were poets.
The remarkable portrait of John Clare by William Hilton (1786-1839), a history painter was a very romantic one, with the sitter every inch the perfect Byronic hero. I confess that I knew little of poetry and I knew nothing of this poet nor his painter. However, this very English portrait immediately commanded my attention, not by the beauty of the sitter alone, but more by the penetrating intelligence and a good mix of sensuality and a thirst for life. The execution of the painting was spontaneous, lucid and reminded me of the great Thomas Gainsborough, though less mannered and fussy.
by William Hilton
oil on canvas, 1820
30 in. x 25 in. (762 mm x 635 mm)
The 1911 portrait of Rupert Brooke by the German artist Clara Ewald (1859-1948) was startling in its directness and modernity. Here, in broad, economical strokes, the artist created on canvas a living and breathing young man, full of vitality, intensity, charm, and even humor. The poet's questioning gaze was directed to life, to universe altogether. Yet, he was also very down to earth and full of humility and humanity. He radiated, like a most healthy country lad, yet there was a kind of intelligence practically jumped off the two-dimensional surface.
by Clara Ewald
oil on canvas, 1911
21 1/2 in. x 29 in. (546 mm x 737 mm)
According to the Gallery's notes, this painting was given by the artist's son, Professor P.P. Ewald in 1972. The artist and her family must be very proud of it. Yet there was some controversy regarding the likeness of the sitter. However, it didn't matter. What mattered was that it was a remarkable portrait.
For further information, I include a paragraph from The National Portrait Gallery below:
The young Rupert Brooke, handsome, well-bred and full of promise as a poet, sat to the German artist Clara Ewald when he was staying in Munich in spring 1911. He was not enjoying himself and missed Cambridge terribly; but fortunately he had an introduction to Ewald and made friends with her son Paul, who was studying physics at Munich University. According to Paul Ewald, 'He would come in for tea and often stay for supper. My impression was that he found it very difficult to adapt himself to Germany and that in his thoughts he lived more in Cambridge than in Munich. This he expresses himself in his letters. So, partly perhaps to cheer him up, my mother painted him.' Most of the people who had known Rupert Brooke reckoned that the result was not a very good likeness - indeed, a later version, which was presented to King's College, Cambridge, caused a great deal of controversy, not least because it was regarded by some of the dons as too effeminate. It has however become one of the images by which he is now well known, including the hat, which he borrowed for the occasion from the artist's son.
My Favorite Museum Collection Series
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