“Is It Possible To Be Both Regal And Powerless?”
by Stephen Kobasa | May 27, 2011 2:06 pm
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment
It is almost a convention to caricature the work of the Regency artist Thomas Lawrence as that of an eminently gifted hack. Most reviews of the current exhibition of his work at the Yale Center for British Art have been smug variations on that theme. I admit to a temptation that way myself.
But a walk through the show with the painter Nathan Lewis led to some more complicated conclusions.
We began with Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, painted in 1789- 90. Following is how our conversation went as we visited the show:
Stephen Kobasa: For me, it’s the darkness here, that looming shadow ...You’ve got the drape, but there’s this other thing, leaking down, it’s almost a cloud behind her. There’s more to that than simply setting the face off.
Nathan Lewis: The age of the woman .. to me there is something very sympathetic about that ... there is beauty, but there is aging. I think there is a loss of innocence. When you look at the face…there’s some experience there…some sense of loss. And there’s a luminosity, like you’re looking through this veil, and here on the sleeve…it’s very mysterious. There’s such a delight in looking. He’s fairly young when he paints this…you really see him testing everything that he has.
SK: Of course, her husband is going mad in the next room…as you say, in that face ... a longing for something that was and isn’t any more. It’s sympathetic without being pandering.
NL: It’s not a simple expression. There is a smile there, but is it keeping up appearances? The expression of the mouth is a little different from the expression in the eyes. There is something going on inside…definitely thoughts that are not easy. There’s also the play between what’s going on outside – the land, the ownership – and the internal reality of being a human in a role.
SK: This palace landscape…there is a sense of limitless sway, but that’s not a consolation, particularly.
NL: Technically there’s such a range of approach in the way he’s playing around with different textures. There are parts in here where he really builds up some of the paint so that the light hits it in these small places…the jewels, all along the dress, certain parts of the landscape where he is actually sculpting with white. I think no matter how close you get, your eyes are always playing tricks on you, on what is it you are actually seeing.
SK: Is it possible to be both regal and powerless? There’s something about her…the dignity is absolute, but there is a sense that she has no influence…
NL: Yeah…it makes me wonder if that is why it was rejected. You don’t see this powerful figure, but someone in a very human predicatment. It’s the face, that’s where the action is taking place…the body is more immobile.
SK: As if she’s working just to keep things under control…
NL: Or working through things in her mind…With Lawrence, there is a bravado to how he paints, and there are things that are so staggering in the way he can make them look simple, but I think one of the reasons this stands out for me is that you can see him laboring as if he wants to get something. He’s so good at understanding faces, character…almost wherever you look in the painting you can see this sort of exploration, desire.
SK: The shadows are falling here…this world is never going to get any brighter…it’s the last flicker of the light. What is it like when you’ve lost your husband before his death? This is more melancholy than I thought when we started.
NL: The placement of her foot right on the edge of the stairs, like on the edge of a precipice…she will always be higher up than we are.
SK: No, we can never be quite eye to eye with her…
We later stood for a time in front of what is a triumvirate portrait depicting Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring, and Charles Wall, painted by Lawrence around 1806:
SK: Here’s that darkness again…it’s like standing in front of a pit. The ledger spread out here…bourgeois power just on the edge of ostentation…a revision of the “brave new world.” Something’s coming…
NL: The main character who’s between the two worlds – the landscape on the outside and inside, the board room.
SK: None of them are in relationship to each other except spatially. The eyes are cast, but not in the direction of any other figure.
NL: I think he’s a great portrait painter; I don’t think he’s a good history painter
SK: You think the indifference here is an accident of the portraiture?
NL: I’m less convinced of the world than I am of the heads.
SK: That darkness doesn’t read as strongly for you, then?
NL: I can see the darkness, I think you have to interpret what’s there. I think it’s contrasted with the little section of the outside world we have here.
SK: It’s one of those paintings that tells me something I’d rather not know. There’s no doubt or skepticism here, just this brutal clarity of purpose.
NL: That people will be subject to…
SK: I think he gets that ... I think you’re right about the way he reads the faces. Did this get refused, too? It’s in a private collection. I wonder if it’s still in the family. That would be a problem for an artist; telling the truth every time and everything gets sent back.
NL: That’s part of the construct of heroism, or the depiction of it .. .depending on how you’re reading it or where your sympathies are, it can seem either regal ... or totalitarian. When you see these paintings ... you realize the gap between this particular culture and this particular artist and the way we think about art ... At the same time, there’s plenty in the pictures that transcends that .. .that connects to us today. That’s the wonder of seeing these things – what world created them – but also that they are very reminiscent of our world now.
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