Portrait within a Portrait

Summary of a presentation to Historiography and Cultural History Class

15th October 2012

This oil on canvas  portait by Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) of the sculptor David Le Merchand (1674-1726) hangs at the National Portait Gallery in London.   The dimensions of the painting are 48 3/4 inches by 39 1/4 inches (1240 mm x 997mm).  It was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1991.

Le Merchand is depicted in three quarters length in a standing postion, looking to his right hand side away from the painter, in a pose suggestive of  reflection and creativity.  His body is tilted into the light, his left hand side shrouded in darkness.  His clothing is relatively informal.  The face is intelligent, and draws the eye.  The expression is engaging but the overall effect not grand.

Highmore gives us clues as to Le Merchand’s occupation.  In his left hand the subject holds a bust of Newton. The fingers grasping the bust are coarse.  Letters spelling out the name of the scientist can just about be made out at the foot of the bust.  Le Merchand is holding the bust on a block of stone.Perhaps this is Le Merchand’s own bust of Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727)?   Newton, like Le Merchand, is in informal pose.  He is not wearing a wig and his shirt is  open necked.  In his creation of Newton, Le Merchand is not pandering to power.  Highmore, who had specific ideas on politeness, would have approved.  By background Highmore was a lawyer.  Abandoning legal practice he attended Sir Godfrey Kneller’s academy and in 1715 established a portrait painting practice. He is associated with some 54 portraits.   His subject the sculptor Le Merchand, was of French Huguenot extraction and emigranted  from France to Scotland at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.   He was also responsible for busts of the philosopher John Locke and the architect Sir Christopher Wren.

The portrait is inspired by notions of politeness expressed by Highmore himself and summarised by Robert Jones, This is not a portrait about power. It represents civility and restraint.  As Jones puts it:  ” politeness is a means of interacting with the world, which at once allows him to appear courteous and refined, yet does not require either the possession of landed wealth or deferral of gratification for its accomplishment”.  The informality of the clothing supports Klein’s view that a growth of consumption in the 18th century led to a standard gentle garb.

Jones RW:  The Empire of Beauty, Gender and the Fomation of Taste in Eighteenth Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1998): 31-33

Klein LE:  Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century, Historical Journal 45 (4) (2002): 869-898


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