Elegance and decadence in portraiture
The portraits in this room show the importance of the ideal of the dandy in the 1890s.
The dandy style originated amongst refined English gentlemen in the early nineteenth century, but was taken up enthusiastically by fashionable Frenchmen. Both aspired to physical elegance, verbal wit and social distinction. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the dandy became a distinctly bohemian figure, associated with sexual decadence and daring artistic tastes.
The most successful artistic exponent of this dandyism was the American-born James McNeill Whistler, whose elegant self-portrait is shown here. His work inspired contemporaries, including Toulouse-Lautrec, to cultivate a rarefied, self-absorbed image of the modern male. Adopting the persona of the dandy became a way for artists to express their indifference to bourgeois conventions.
The large portraits by Jacques-Emile Blanche and Giovanni Boldini present modern decadence in the most elegant visual form. Women – whether socialite or proletarian, equivalent or prey of the dandy – could be represented in the same chic style.
… a singular dandy, distant and seductive at the same time
The art critic Louis Vauxcelles on Sickert, 1907
Whistler shows himself aged sixty-four, dressed in a long brown coat and gesturing to the viewer. He associates himself with the aristocracy by adopting the pose from a portrait of Pablo de Valladolid by Velasquez (Whistler owned a photo of the painting).
Brown and Gold was exhibited in the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris to great acclaim. One critic described it as vague like an apparition, but so gripping, so real.
Dr. Bourges shared an apartment with Lautrec in the Rue Fontaine. He is shown here wearing a top hat and overcoat, casually putting on a pair of gloves. His cane, a symbol of his class position, is tucked beneath his arm. He is posing in Lautrecs studio, hence the frames stacked on the floor.
Lautrec painted many portraits of his friends, and often used essence (pigment thinned with turpentine) to suggest the character had been caught unawares.
This painting is thought to have been inspired by Aubrey Beardsley walking through Hampstead Church graveyard after the unveiling of a memorial to the poet, Keats. At the time Beardsley was suffering from tuberculosis, the disease which had killed Keats.
Sickert places the elegantly dressed, yet emaciated figure, against a subdued background which adds to the poignancy of the image; Beardsley died four years later.
Whistler had gained an international reputation by the time the Italian artist, Boldini, painted this portrait. Although he is dressed in formal evening attire, the vibrant brushwork captures Whistler’s vivacious character. The size of the figure within the composition gives him a monumentality beyond his normal stature.
But Whistler disliked the portrait: They say that looks like me, but I hope I don’t look like that! His friends disagreed and thought it accurately portrayed him in his worst temper.
The beautiful Lady Campbell is shown in a pose mirroring Whistlers in Boldrinis portrait of him, shown above. She became close friends with Boldini after her well-publicised divorce from the Scottish aristocrat, Lord Campbell. In the court case in 1886 he accused her of having four affairs.
Gertrude Elizabeth had a close circle of friends, including the artist Edward Burne-Jones and Kate Greenaway, and became a successful writer and journalist.