Issue Number: 94
From Rousseau to Romantic
Do the clothes make the man? Desmond Shawe-Taylor looks at portraits from before and after the French Revolution and identifies an iconographic shift in what it means to be a man of feeling
Joseph Wright of Derby, Sir Brooke Boothby, 1781 TATE,LONDON 4132/BEQUEATHED BY MISS AGNES ANN BEST, 1925
These two portraits come from opposite sides of the Channel and are separated by almost 50 years. The sitters, nonetheless, are similar men: both progressive, internationalist, wealthy landowners. Sir Brooke Boothby (above) clutches a copy of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the revolutionary thinker he had hosted during his English sojourn. Louis-Auguste Schwiter (below), a cultured Anglophile and friend of the artist, is presented in a portrait that pays conscious tribute to the English artist Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Eugène Delacroix, Louis-Auguste Schwiter,1826–30
Both these portraits express an attitude to landscape pioneered by Rousseau, who believed that alienation from nature was the source of all corruption in society. The English style of park – a curving, rolling man-made landscape that emulated nature, as opposed to a formal garden – had been universally adopted in England by the time of Joseph Wright of Derby’s portrait and throughout Europe by the time of Delacroix’s (examples of ‘jardin anglais’ or ‘Englischer garten’ survive to this day). Boothby’s place of contemplation appears remote and wild; Schwiter’s estate has an elegant terraced foreground, but a sublime, sweeping distance. Both these sitters seem to pick up the mood of the landscape around them; according to the beliefs of the day this makes them ‘natural-resonators’, sound of heart and uncorrupted by society. Boothby’s eyes appear misty with the tender feelings engendered by his woodland sanctuary, while Schwiter’s brows have the stormy turbulence of the lowering evening sky.
There is, however, a difference between these two images: Boothby is fashion-conscious, but only Schwiter is a dandy. Boothby’s studied carelessness – unbuttoned cuffs and reclining posture – are indications (like his love of nature) of his capacity to feel. The same conventions (indicating the capacity to love) had been mocked as histrionic posturing 200 years earlier. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind rebukes Orlando for failing to strike the right love-sick note in a description which perfectly fits Boothby’s natural dress-down chic: ‘Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and every thing about you demonstrating a careless desolation. But you are no such man; you are rather point-device in your accoutrements, as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.’ Boothby too might be accused of loving himself rather ‘than seeming the lover of nature’, but there are historic references in this image – like the way in which his pose echoes that of an antique reclining river god – which make him both part of the classical tradition of the figure in a landscape and an idiosyncratic departure from it.
The same could not be said of Delacroix’s portrait, which is as near to a modern fashion plate as a work of art can be, right down to the way in which the sitter addresses the viewer, caressing his hem. The fashion at this date was for English natural simplicity (the sartorial equivalent of the English park): no medals, no powdered hair, no brocade or gold buttons, no colour, except in the lining of the hat; nothing unnatural and ostentatious, no more ‘trappings of rank’. Trousers were originally introduced as a loose version of breeches to encourage children to take exercise (another Rousseau idea) and were taken up by adults in France during the Revolution. The English frock-coat (or frac as it was called in French, German and Italian) was universally adopted as the modern equivalent to Hamlet’s black cloak – sober, sardonic and soulful.
Neither portrait here sports the trappings of rank; both are interested in showing off the sitter’s ‘style’ rather than ‘status’. But style mattered much more in the 1820s than it did in the 1780s, in part because the sumptuary rules of the ancien régime (with swords, medals and colours indicating specific ranks within a defined hierarchy) had been broken by the French Revolution. Clothes no longer identified the class one had been born into but rather what one had become. Fashion denoted an individual’s style, which anyone could acquire, as long as they were rich or talented enough to do so – hence the modern phenomenon of the dandy.
The youth of this era emulated Byron, whose manners are described by Edward John Trelawny: the ‘character he most commonly appeared in was of the free and easy sort… at nothing was he more indignant than at being treated as a man of letters, instead of as a lord and a man of fashion. This prevented foreigners and literary people from getting on with him, for they invariably so offended.’ Trelawny was disappointed that Byron was more lord than poet or radical, but since Byron was a lord, you might expect him to err in this direction. It is more surprising that cultivated dandies occurred everywhere and from every walk of life: Walter Scott, Alfred de Musset, Pushkin, and even Beethoven.
Two elements, both seen in Delacroix’s portrait, distinguish the soulful and Byronic dandy from one who is merely fashion-conscious. The first is the nervous quiver of a thoroughbred, the indication of a capacity to suffer – which, for the Russian novelist Mikhail Lermontov, was the defining characteristic of the hero of his time. The other is a kind of bitterness, bordering on self-loathing, which expresses itself, among other ways, in contempt for those very forms of fashion and society that are so scrupulously observed. This explains so much of the glamour and the anguish of the modern Hamlets and gilded misfits of the Romantic era.
Delacroix’s genius in this portrait is that he takes on the contempt himself, executing a pastiche of Lawrence’s portrait style with impatience, even irony, but also with affection. Delacroix’s image is like a hasty oil sketch, with the mobility and the sweep of the hand that this implies; but it is a full-scale oil sketch, which seems to catch Lawrence’s gloss of material and depth of shadow almost in spite of the artist’s
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760—1830
, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), until 20 April.
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