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Monday, July 20, 2015

Sir Henry Raeburn

The Macdonald Children, Ranald, Robert, and Donald, Henry Raeburn
Not only knighted, but with his very
own postage stamp, Sir Henry Raeburn.
One of the difficulties in being a portrait artist is trying to keep track of all the portraits drawn or painted over the course of ones career. While other types of work tend to hang around to "haunt" the artist, sometimes for decades, portraits scamper off like wayward children almost the moment they're completed, usually never to be seen again. They don't come "home for the holidays" nor even call on the artist's birthday. I've stumbled over a few purely by accident on occasions, but more often, I simply hear about them from someone who has seen them. I'm so negligent in this regard that usually, I don't even get around to photographing them before they're "out the door." Although I sign and date on the front of the canvas everything I do, I'm sure art historians in the future will be taking my name in vain for not having kept better records beyond that. I can't even provide a rough "guesstimate" of how many I've done. That's why, when I study the work of a portrait artist from previous centuries, I'm always amazed and thankful that he or she (or someone else) has been conscientious enough to keep track of the "who and when" of each portrait. The 19th-century Scottish portrait artist, Sir Henry Raeburn, is an excellent example.
John Johnstone, Betty Johnstone, and Miss Wedderburn, ca. 1790-1795, Henry Raeburn

William Blair, Henry Raeburn, one of my
personal favorites--young yet ageless.
Technically, Raeburn is British. Though born in Scotland in 1756, he was the first important portrait painter after the 1707 Union of Scotland and England (and Wales) which produced what we commonly know today as Great Britain. As a portrait artist he was as good as any living and working at the time and far better then most. However he doesn't stand apart. Looking at his work, it could easily be mistaken for dozens of similar painters casting about to fill the need of wealthy British noblemen to preserve their sober countenances for posterity to ignore, or worse, laugh at for their pretentiousness. Be that as it may, there's nothing the least bit pretentious about Henry Raeburn's The Macdonald Children, Ranald, Robert, and Donald (top). The three of them, posed with their dog, appear to be a rowdy, fun-loving pack who must have given the artist "fits" in getting them to "hold still" even for a few seconds. Herein lies the key element making Raeburn's work stand apart from his peers. He knew how to "handle" children, and more, how to capture each ones personal essence despite their youthful exuberance. The older generation, the Johnstones, (above) were less of a challenge.

Boy with a Rabbit, 1814, Henry Raeburn
Girl Sketching, Henry Raeburn
The portrait artist today, in painting children, has a far easier time than would such an artist during the 18th and 19th-centuries. We have cameras. We have virtually unlimited opportunities to capture that special look, the impish grin, the fragile moment when children are themselves. Moreover, once we have it, we have a virtual tool bag from which to draw the digital tricks we need in utilizing such a prize moment, whether a single child or a half-dozen or so. I once painted a family of eight or ten children, parents, and grandparents. Had they had to pose individually or as a group, I'd probably STILL be working on it.

The Drummond Children,
Henry Raeburn
The Allen Brothers, Henry Raeburn.
These two look armed and dangerous.

Lady Harriet Don with Her Son,
Henry Raeburn. (A Momma's boy?)
As an artist who paints portraits exclusively from photos, I've known the trials and tribulations of trying to get an uncooperative child (or worse, a crying child) to pose for even one good photo. I can hardly imagine getting a rambunctious young boy to pose for the hours need to paint a portrait. And Raeburn painted as many as three young siblings interacting together in a single pose from life. As seem in his portrait of The Drummond Children (above, left) and The Allen Brothers (above, right). Such patience and skill seems little short of supernatural. Maybe he hypnotized them. It's easy to say that children in the past were better behaved and more patiently obedient than kids today. But keep in mind, the children Raeburn painted were also the sons and daughters of the wealthy British upper classes; thus their offspring might just as easily be what we'd call today "spoiled brats."

William Ferguson and His Son,
Henry Raeburn
The sheer number of different groupings Raeburn employed in painting children give evidence of a master of portrait composition. Some of his most charming works are the double portraits of fathers, mothers, and grandparents with their loving youngsters. Raeburn's Lady Harriet Don with Her Son (above, right) captures both the love and stern parentage which goes along with it. On the male side of the ledger, we have William Ferguson and his Son (left). Although the father seems somewhat detached, there's no mistaking the look of worshipful love seen in the face of his son. Of course the apparel differs from that of today. Yet, one look at the Portrait of the Binning Children (below) from 1811, and it would seem that there was little difference from today when it comes to kids being kids.

Portrait of the Binning Children, 1811, Henry Raeburn
Portrait of Sir Walter Scott and His Dogs, 1823,
Henry Raeburn. He did okay with older children as well.


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