Friday, October 25, 2013

"Sir Duncan Campbell" by Sir Henry Raeburn

I get over to San Francisco pretty frequently and when I do, I try to get to the Legion of Honor Museum and visit "Sir Duncan Campbell" by artist Sir Henry Raeburn (1756 - 1823) . The painting is usually hung at eye level, gazing down benignly into your own eyes, since Campbell was clearly painted on a somewhat elevated model stand.

"Sir Duncan Campbell"  Image taken from this site.

I have tremendous respect and admiration for Raeburn. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland and orphaned, he taught himself how to paint by working with a jeweler, painting miniatures. After deciding to pursue portrait painting as a career, he married well, met the famous English painter Joshua Reynolds and then went to Italy to study art for two years. Raeburn returned to Edinburgh and started his very successful career in commissioned portraiture.

  "Charles Hay, Lord Newton",   by Sir Henry Raeburn, image from this site.

Raeburn's painting technique is characterized by bold brushwork, dramatic lighting and a sensitivity to the characteristics of the individuals he painted. His paint handling is fluid and expressive, with remarkable control of tonal relationships. Sitters would come to his studio and be entertained by his wit and good nature as the painter worked on capturing the likeness. He seemed to have an immediate and fresh response to his sitters; he had "... an unpremeditated view of the outcome, which meant a minimum of planning and little preliminary 'drawing' on the canvas in the sense that [English painter Sir Thomas Lawrence] would have understood the term." Duncan Thomson, Raeburn: The Art of Sir Henry Raeburn, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1997. This meant that some of his paintings evidence signs of overpainting and changes as the painting progressed. It also means he employed a variety of paint techniques throughout his life. Many of his paintings are broadly worked in the manner of Velasquez, but he also painted portraits which are subtle and nuanced.

Raeburn worked sight-size, meaning that he set up his easel next to the podium for his sitters. His studio was lit by a large north-facing window which he had built for his use, and also installed a complex series of shutters to control the flow of light into the room.

Thomson, Ibid., page 24. My scan, which is a little fuzzy, sorry.

Darren Rousar has written a wonderful post on Raeburn and his sight-size technique on his Studio Rousar site here.  Rousar's site is a terrific source of information about painters working in the realist tradition, I highly recommend it to artists.

My books and my research online indicates that Raeburn apparently left very few drawings or preparatory sketches. However, around ten years ago, in the early days of Ebay, my husband found this online, "Portrait Drawing of a Lady, by Sir Henry Raeburn." He paid around $200 for it. It has no particular provenance except that it came from Canada. Is it a fake? I suppose so, but well, here it is anyway. If anybody reading this is a Raeburn expert I hope you'll email me. A few years ago, I did get to go to Scotland and briefly thought I would take this with me to show the experts up in Edinburgh, but then I thought I might not be able to get back out of the country with it.

"Portrait of Lady" by...... ?...

Meanwhile, I try to sketch Raeburns whenever I'm in museums. I often don't have much time; it depends who I'm with, but I do stand and draw them whenever I can. Raeburn was amazingly prolific in his career and his paintings are widely distributed. One of my best experiences was in the sparsely-attended museum in Dublin. The museum guards wanted to bring me a chair and were extremely nice to me, especially after I told them I had distant Irish roots. This is what I did with Sir Duncan Campbell in San Francisco:

My little sketch.

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