Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance

Thursday, February 24, 2011
Sunday, June 5, 2011

Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) was the most famous portraitist of his day. Praised and abused by the popular press and the exhibition-going public, his controversial portraits set the standard for beauty, elegance, and glamour in the unstable period of revolution and reform through which he lived. Lacking in formal and artistic education, Lawrence scaled the most dazzling heights of his profession. Through his prodigious talents and ambition, he became not only the most popular chronicler of fashionable London society, but also one of the most lauded and imitated portraitists in Europe. Portraits that emerged from Lawrence’s brush were startlingly modern, yet grounded in historical forms. He captured his subject’s inner life (the “fire in the eye” that contemporary critics remarked upon) while simultaneously representing the sitter’s idealized social persona.

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance was wide in scope: it contrasted the artist’s approach to sitters according to their age and gender; juxtaposed his public identity with the private world of his studio; explored his technical innovations as a draftsman and painter; and placed him within the broader contexts of the aesthetic debates, networks of patronage, and international politics of his day. Attention was paid to meaningful groupings that Lawrence created by exhibiting works together. The exhibition also offered visitors a behind-the-scenes look at his working methods and conveyed the importance of his studio as a workspace, a social space in London, and a space for the display of his own works and stellar collection of Old Master drawings.

The exhibition began with a restaging of Lawrence’s first definitive Royal Academy success in 1790, where he showed, to thunderous acclaim, portraits of the actress Elizabeth Farren and Queen Charlotte. A display of works from Lawrence’s controversial exhibitions from the 1790s followed, including portraits that challenged traditional notions of masculinity. During the period from 1797 to 1815 the artist experienced financial and emotional turmoil but created his most innovative and experimental group portraits and “half-history” portraits. Lawrence was sent abroad by the Prince Regent between 1818 and 1820 to paint the victors of Waterloo, and a section of the exhibition included portraits of the Duke of Wellington and

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George James Welbore Agar-Ellis, later 1st Lord Dover (detail), 1823–24, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Charles William Vane-Stewart, later 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. The exhibition also examined the innovative chalk-on-canvas drawings that he made during his travels. It featured some of Lawrence’s best works on paper, ranging from friendship portraits and commissioned portrait drawings to sketches of historical events.

Inspired by a drawing of his studio in 1824, the last section of the exhibition area explored new paradigms of masculinity and femininity in Lawrence’s later work and also looked at the importance of his portraits of children. “The magic of his art is thrown around the representations of the most ordinary things,” a critic wrote at this time. The exhibition shared this magic with visitors drawn by the beauty of Lawrence’s paintings, by interest in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and by the challenging representations of gender roles in Lawrence’s work.

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance was organized by the Center and the National Portrait Gallery, London, and curated by Cassandra Albinson, Associate Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Center; Peter Funnell, Curator of Nineteenth-Century Portraits and Head of Research Programmes, National Portrait Gallery; and Lucy Peltz, Curator of Eighteenth-Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional support was provided by the David T. Langrock Foundation.

National Portrait Gallery, London:
October 21, 2010–January 23, 2011

Yale Center for British Art:
February 24–June 5, 2011