In Focus

A Sir Thomas Lawrence Portrait

The following essay is an article from the Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin_, Winter,1986/87._

The Dallas Museum of Art's newly acquired Portrait of the Honorable Mrs. Seymour Bathurst by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) brings to the collection a masterwork of English portraiture and a document of emerging Romantic taste in European art. It was painted in 1828, when Lawrence was President of the Royal Academy and famous throughout Europe as England's leading portraitist, a mantle he inherited from Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. The subject is Julia Hankey shown seated outdoors in a park-like setting. As Miss Hankey was recently betrothed to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Seymour Bathurst, the painting may well have been commissioned in celebration of that happy event. Letters between the artist and Miss Hankey's mother still survive, giving dates for sittings at Lawrence's studio in Russell Square, London .

Although actually painted indoors, the portrait captures the radiance and warmth of a beautiful young woman in outdoor sunlight. Directly opposed to more formal, classical modes of portraiture, Lawrence excelled at bringing his subjects to life with a spirited elegance and rich, painterly naturalism that gave his work tremendous contemporary appeal and made it influential for younger artists, in England and the Continent, who were evolving away from Neoclassicism toward romantic ideals. Miss Hankey clearly is from the aristocratic, privileged class of English society yet she appears gracious and natural in manner, as if engaged in friendly conversation. Characteristic of Lawrence's later work, in which his style became particularly fluid and colorful, the sitter is absorbed in a sumptuous play of brushwork and colored light. Her face, elongated neck (a fashionable mannerism of the time), and graceful hands are carefully modeled. The white dress and pink scarf and belt, however, are sketched with an exuberance that practically dissolves their materiality into pure color and movement, evidence of Lawrence's virtuosity with the loaded brush. A similar freedom of handling paint is found in the background, which leads the eye along a deep, wooded recession at the left to a burst of sunlight in the distance. Small vignettes of color—such as the flowers on the stone pillar and the rings on Miss Hankey's fingers—enliven the composition still more. In all, the painting exemplifies those qualities of sensuous elegance that French artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Chassériau found so exciting in the"style Anglais."

Although completed in 1828, the portrait of Miss Hankey was not immediately paid for, and it remained in Lawrence's studio until his death in 1830. Julia married Lieutenant-Colonel Bathurst in 1829, and perhaps her mother had assumed that the husband would gladly pay for so charming a portrait of his new bride. If so , she was mistaken. We know from the account books from Lawrence's estate that Mrs. Hankey was able to retrieve the portrait only after she made three payments in early 1830. At that point, it seems to have gone to the home of the Bathursts in Bagshot, Surrey, southwest of London. Tragically, Lieutenant-Colonel Bathurst died in 1834 at the age of forty-one, and Mrs. Bathurst, who must have still been graced with the youthful spirit and beauty so notable in her portrait, never remarried. Their only son, after the deaths of his two unmarried uncles, eventually inherited the family earldom. He moved to the family seat at Cirencester Park in 1878, one year after his mother's death, and took with him this portrait.

Adapted from

Steven A. Nash, "A Sir Thomas Lawrence Portrait: A Recent Acquisition," Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin, Winter 1986/87, p. 2.

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