"... he never fails in giving a likeness, at once vivd, unmistakable, and pleasing. He paints the truth, and he paints it in love."¹ ~ Dr. John Brown speaking of Sir Henry Raeburn
It should come as no surprise that Scottish portrait artist Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) employed a very limited palette. All one must do is look at a collection of his works and it will be quite obvious that the same few colors appear in every one of his paintings. His colors, which consisted of white, black, vermilion, burnt sienna, raw sienna, and Prussian blue, were not uncommon choices among all painters of the period, and yet, in a roomful of late eighteenth century portraits, Raeburn's stand out.
"It is impossible," says Timothy Cole in the book Masters of Art, "not to be instantly impressed with (Raeburn's) force and superiority as a portrait painter."² Undoubtedly, Sir Henry Raeburn stands among the greatest painters in Great Britain's history. Though largely self-taught, he mastered an approach which has often been compared to that great master Velázquez, whose work was likely not even known to Raeburn. Using sight-size, sure and bold square brushstrokes, and an unerring dedication to nature, the over-six-hundred likenesses he painted in his lifetime express a vitality seldom seen before his debut. He was, as Richard Muther said in The History of Modern Painting, "a born painter," whose figures were "informed by a startling intensity of life."³
Of Raeburn's working practices:
He spoke a few words to me in his usual brief and kindly way - evidently to put me into an agreeable mood ; and then having placed me in a chair on a platform at the end of his painting-room, in the posture required, set up his easel beside me with the canvass ready to receive the colour. When he saw all was right, he took his palette and his brush, retreated back step by step, with his face towards me, till he was nigh the other end of his room ; he stood and studied for a minute more, then came up to the canvass, and, without looking at me, wrought upon it with colour for some time. Having done this, he retreated in the same manner, studied my looks at that distance for about another minute, then came hastily up to the canvass and painted a few minutes more. I had sat to other artists ; their way was quite different - they made an outline carefully in chalk, measured it with compasses, placed the canvass close to me, and looking me almost without ceasing in the face, proceeded to fill up the outline with colour. They succeeded best in the minute detail - Raeburn best in the general result of the expression ; they obtained by means a multitude of little touches what he found by broader masses ; they gave more of the man - he gave most of the mind.⁴
Raeburn was in love with his daily task. He used to declare portrait-painting to be the most delightful thing in the world, for every one, he said, came to him in the happiest of moods and with the pleasantest of faces. It is significant, too, of the generous temper he showed to his brother-artists that he described his profession as one that leads neither to discords nor disputes. Of his habits Allan Cunningham gives an interesting account: 'The movements of the artist were as regular as those of a clock. He rose at seven during summer, took breakfast about eight with his wife and children, walked into George Street, and was ready for a sitter by nine; and of sitters he generally had for many years not fewer than three or four a day. To these he gave an hour and a half each. He seldom kept a sitter more than two hours, unless the person happened—and that was often the case—to be gifted with more than common talents. He then felt himself happy, and never failed to detain the one client till the arrival of another intimated that he must be gone. For a head size he generally required four or five sittings; and he preferred painting the head and hands to any other part of the body, assigning as a reason that they required least consideration. A fold of drapery or the natural ease which the casting of a mantle over the shoulder demanded occasioned him more perplexing study than a head full of thought and imagination. Such was the intuition with which he penetrated at once to the mind that the first sitting rarely came to a close without his having seized strongly on the character and disposition of the individual. He never drew in his heads, or indeed any part of the body, with chalk—a system pursued successfully by Lawrence—but began with the brush at once. The forehead, chin, nose, and mouth were his first touches. He always painted standing, and never used a stick for resting his hand on; for such was his accurateness of eye and steadiness of nerve that he could introduce the most delicate touches, or the most mechanical regularity of line, without aid or other contrivance than fair, off-hand dexterity. He remained in his painting-room till a little after five o'clock, when he walked home, and dined at six.' The picture is well completed by Scott's description: 'His manly stride backwards, as he went to contemplate his work at a proper distance, and, when resolved on the necessary point to be touched, his step forward, were magnificent. I see him in my mind's eye, with his hand under his chin, contemplating his picture, which position always brought me in mind of a figure of Jupiter which I have somewhere seen.'⁵
His practice of painting very directly with moderately thin paint on a white linen twill canvas of the kind called 'ticken' (showing a diagonal line in the weave), and primed to a luminous white surface, made it possible to obtain a high power of color with Raw Sienna, which is slightly translucent.⁶
Raeburn's method stands in no need of further explanation. His intention was to be absolutely true to nature, and to reach that aim he was compelled to treat details as they actually came into his vision relatively to his sitter. His vision, that is, was concentrated on his model; of anything else he had only an indistinct impression. He never, therefore, obtruded accessories to the division of attention with his principal subject.⁷
Even beyond the play of light and its transformations of color and surface Raeburn sought vitality, the inner life which includes character and temperament, or sentiment individuality. In that also he followed nature, followed her into the inmost recesses of humanity. Only by adhering to nature did he secure variety. He did not pass all his sitters through one mechanical process, or turn them out of a common mold. He differentiated them not less in mental characteristics than in physical form.⁸
His method may... be reduced to a formula: (1) He posed his sitters upon a raised platform; (2) he placed his easel either beside or behind his model, and did not copy a face by constant reference to the original, but laid it down by a series of swift impressions committed to memory; (3) he used only unprepared blank canvas; (4) he painted with a free hand, without a mahlstick or other support; (5) he made no preliminary drawing, but began at once to model with the brush in colour; (6) he made no measurements; (7) he did not tire his sitters, but kept them only from an hour and a half to two hours; (8) the number of sittings ranged between four and six; (9) he aimed his conversation at bringing out character and living interest; (10) the forehead, chin, nose, and mouth were his first touches; (11) a fold of drapery, or the disposal of a mantle, cost him more study than a head. He made a pleasure of every sitting, a friend of every sitter. He did not treat his subjects as lay-figures, but reached truth by freeing them from self-consciousness and constraint, and infusing into them something of his own animation.
The difficulties of such a method are more obvious than its advantages, and yet the latter are great. Its simple directness made for naturalistic truth. Neither was time thrown away upon preliminaries, nor was the painter's first fresh enthusiasm allowed to evaporate while they were being performed. Having read as well as posed his sitter, he did not allow the first sitting to pass without stating the conception he had formed of his subject-model, and indicating the general artistic effect he intended to work out of the facts before him.⁹
¹ Edward Pinnington, Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A., (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1904), p. 129.
² Timothy Cole, Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs: Old English Masters, (Bates & Guild Company, 1905), p. 454.
³ Richard Muther, Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs: The History of Modern Painting, (Bates & Guild Company, 1905), pp. 455.
⁴ Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Vol. II, (George Bell and Sons, London, 1879), pp. 268-269.
⁵ Walter Armstrong, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, vol. 47, as retrieved from www.en.wikisource.org/wiki/Raeburn,_Henry_(DNB00), on March 23, 2011.
⁶ Frank Morley Fletcher, Colour-Control: The Organization and Control of the Artist's Palette, (Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1936), pp. 17-18.
⁷ Pinnington, p. 204.
⁸ Pinnington, p. 205.
⁹ Pinnington, pp. 125-126.