Elegance and decadence in portraiture

The 1890s

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’.

James McNeill Whistler Brown and Gold: Self-portrait about 1895-1900 Oil on canvas

James McNeill Whistler
Brown and Gold: Self-portrait about 1895-1900
Oil on canvas

Photo
© Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Portrait of Dr Henri Bourges 1891 Oil on cardboard mounted on panel

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Portrait of Dr Henri Bourges 1891
Oil on cardboard mounted on panel

Image courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittburgh.Lent by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Acquired through the generosity of the Sarah Mellon Scaife Family 196.

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 Lautrec’s 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.

Walter Richard Sickert Aubrey Beardsley 1894 Oil on canvas

Walter Richard Sickert
Aubrey Beardsley 1894
Oil on canvas

Estate of Walter R Sickert. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2002

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 Whistler’s in Boldrini’s 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.

Giovanni Boldini James McNeill Whistler 1897 Oil on canvas

Giovanni Boldini
James McNeill Whistler 1897
Oil on canvas

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

Giovanni Boldini Gertrude Elizabeth, Lady Colin Campbell about 1897 Oil on canvas

Giovanni Boldini
Gertrude Elizabeth, Lady Colin Campbell about 1897
Oil on canvas

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London