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Friday, January 10, 2014

William Dobson

Charles I, 1643, William Dobson
When we Americans talk about "the" civil war, we're referring our nasty little four-year dust-up between the Union and the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. In our provincial thinking, we seldom take into consideration that so-called "civil" wars (talk about a misnomer) date back at least as far as early Roman history, and that the chronicles of military conflict between political factions within a given nation (the definition of a civil war) recount dozens of such incidents. During the years 1642 to 1651, the British had a "doozie" of a civil war lasting the better part of nine years (three conflicts, actually, with breaks for crumpets and tea in between). The whole affair could be boiled down to King Charles I (left) against the Parliamentarians. The Parliamentarians eventually won and Charles I lost (his head, among other things). Against the background of this proper British uproar, rose Charles's favorite artist, William Dobson (following the death of the king's "official" portrait painter, Anthony van Dyck, in 1641).
William Dobson Self-portrait,
1645, (detail from a triple

When one writes about William Dobson, it becomes necessary to first confront the fact that there have been two painters in British history named William Dobson. The first, the painter of Charles I (mentioned above), was just plain "William Dobson," born around 1611 and died around 1646. The second was the mid-19th century William Charles Thomas Dobson, who was an Academic painter of children, grown-up portraits, and biblical scenes, born in 1818 and who died in 1898. The former is considered the first great British artist (van Dyck was Flemish). The latter Dobson was a mediocre German import. Both painted portraits, but beyond that, they had little in common. Strangely, perhaps because William Dobson died young, neither artist seem well-remembered by British art historians.
Charles II as Prince of Wales, 1642, William Dobson
It's believed that William Dobson studied under Anthony van Dyck, though the evidence is mostly visual, and could in fact, be merely a matter of 17th century style. Charles I was probably the most vain monarch ever to sport a crown (with the possible exception of France's Louis XIV). Anthony van Dyck painted him well over a dozen times (once rendering his image three times in the same portrait). Dobson painted the king two, maybe three times during the years the King was hold up in his garrison at Oxford. Though there are some superficial similarities, William Dobson was no Anthony van Dyck. Van Dyck was a shameless flatterer, which probably accounts for his phenomenal popularity with His Highness. Dobson was not. His Portrait of Charles I (top) is pleasant enough, but certainly lacks the brash flamboyance of van Dyck or his king. Of course, by the time Dobson rose to replace van Dyck, the king had little to be flamboyant about. During this same period at Oxford, Dobson also painted the king's twelve-year-old son, Charles, II as Prince of Wales (above). The figure on the far right is a page. That's the head of Medusa in the lower left corner (symolic of Parliament, perhaps). Charles II spent most of his life in a turbulent exile following the war.
Portrait of the Artist's Wife, 1630,
William Dobson.
One of Dobson's earliest portraits, and arguably one of his best, was that of his wife (left) painted in 1630, a rather attractive, full-bodied lady with a refined, patient, if somewhat skeptical look. Charles I, despite his having lost the war and his subsequent execution in 1649, actually outlived Dobson. Once the king surrendered, and while being held more than two years for trial, there was little need for yet another portrait of the dethroned monarch. Having aligned himself with the hated monarchy, Dobson suffered a lack of commissions. Imprisoned for unpaid debts, the artist died in poverty at the age of thirty-six. Despite his short life, a surprising number of Dobson's portraits survive, not because he painted them, but whom he painted. They were mostly caveliers (and other supporters of the king) between the years 1630 and his death.



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  2. Hello! Lovely to see an article on the wonderful Dobson! One point - the self-portrait is not him. In the full, three-figure portrait, Dobson is the man in the middle. The man shown here is possibly the musician Nicholas Lanier. Best regards.

  3. Rosalinda--

    Thank you for bringing the error to my attention. My source listed three figures, Dobson, along with Charles COTTERELL and Balthasar GERBIER. I just assumed they were listed left to right. There was no mention of Nicholas Lanier. I've made the correction and thanks again for being so conscientious as to bring this to my attention.--Jim