This important, finely painted self-portrait was made by Jonathan Richardson towards the end of his life. From 1728, until his death in 1745, Richardson undertook a concerted campaign of self-portraiture. It was not until the sale of Richardson, the Younger’s collection in 1772 that the extent of his activities as a self-portraitist were revealed, prompting the writer Horace Walpole to observe that: ‘after his retirement from business, the good old man seems to have amused himself with writing a short poem, and drawing his own or son’s portrait every day.’ Whilst numerous drawings survive, Richardson produced very few painted self-portraits, of which this is one of the most impressive. Painted on an intimate scale, this portrait is a remarkably lively and penetrating depiction of the most British important art theorist of the eighteenth century.
Richardson had risen from modest beginnings – he was the son of a London silk weaver – to become one of the most successful portrait painters of his generation. His sitters included many luminaries of the late Stuart and early Georgian era – aristocrats Sir Robert Walpole and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, authors Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior and Sir Richard Steele, the sculptor Michael Rysbrack, the artist Sir James Thornhill and the great physician-collectors Sir Hans Sloane and Dr Richard Mead. According to his son, Richardson had twice been ‘powerfully invited’ to be the King’s painter, but had refused because of his ‘aversion to what he called the slavery of court dependence.’ He authored the pioneering Theory of Painting in 1715 and the Two Discourses in 1719, he was a director, from its foundation, of the Great Queen Street Academy. On Richardson’s death in 1745, the chronicler of the early Georgian art world, George Vertue remarked that: ‘this was the last of the Eminent old painters. that had been contemporyes in Reputation – Kneller Dahl Jarvis & Richardson for portrait painting.’
As Susan Owens has pointed out in the recent exhibition devoted to Richardson’s self-portraiture, he only began to produce studies of himself in around 1728. Made during his semi-retirement, Richardson’s self-portraits constitute one of the most extraordinary projects of self-depiction undertaken in early modern Britain. The present oil portrait sits neatly within the sequence. Made on a small scale, Richardson depicts himself, as he frequently did without wig, wearing a cap. There is much evidence to suggest that his self-portraiture was a private, meditative process of self-scrutiny and as such Richardson frequently depicted himself with informal ease. The painting, like the drawings, is closely observed and finely painted, the scale further points to its place within the drawn sequence.
Carol Gibson-Wood has observed that Richardson’s self-portraiture was a way of ‘manifesting that self-analytic process which he associated with the attainment of virtue.’ Gibson-Wood points to the parallel with Richardson’s own poetry, which he produced continuously during his retirement. In a poem of 1736 entitled ‘A Better Picture’ he actually describes the painting of a self-portrait as a metaphor for the process of self-improvement. It is clear that Richardson thought of the twin activities of poetry and self-portraiture as both analogous and complementary. In the introduction of Morning Thoughts, Richardson explained:
I wake early, think; dress me, think; come back to my chamber, think; and as I allow no thoughts unworthy to be written, I write. Thus verse is grown habitual to me. I pretend, however, to no finished poetry, no nice correction they are works of another kind, like sketches in drawing.
It is clear also, given his collecting, that Richardson must have been conscious of the great series of self-portraits produced by earlier artists, such as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Titian and others. A larger, less incisive or carefully executed self-portrait survives in the National Portrait Gallery, London and seems likely to have been a scaled up copy of the present study. This intimate painted portrait seems likely to have remained in the collection of Richardson’s son, Jonathan Richardson, the Younger, and was probably included in his posthumous sale.
- Quoted in Susan Owens, Jonathan Richardson: By Himself, exh. cat. London (The Courtauld Gallery), 2015, pp.9-10.
- Jonathan Richardson, Morning Thoughts, London, 1776, p.281.
- G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1929-47, III, p.125.
- Susan Owens, Jonathan Richardson By Himself, exh. cat., London (Courtauld Gallery), 2015, pp.9-18.
- Carol Gibson-Wood, Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment, New Haven and London, 2000, pp.134-135.
- Jonathan Richardson, Morning Thoughts, London, 1776, pp.132-3.
- Quoted in Carol Gibson-Wood, Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment, New Haven and London, 2000, p.127