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Oil painting - George Wallis, FSA (1811-1891), Keeper of the Art Collections in the South Kensington Museum (1863-1891)
  • George Wallis, FSA (1811-1891), Keeper of the Art Collections in the South Kensington Museum (1863-1891)
    Legros, Alphonse, born 1837 - died 1911
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George Wallis, FSA (1811-1891), Keeper of the Art Collections in the South Kensington Museum (1863-1891)

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    London (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1876-1891 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Legros, Alphonse, born 1837 - died 1911 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the artist

  • Museum number:

    896-1892

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) was born in Dijon where he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts before attending the 'Petite Ecole' of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran (1802-1897) in Paris and then Ecole des Beaux-Arts. he started exhibited at the Salon in 1857. In 1863, Legros visited London where he found admirers and patrons, notably the Ionides family, and was ardently promoted by the brothers Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti. An etcher, a painter and a sculptor, he succeeded Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) at the Slade School in 1876 and was naturalized as a British citizen in 1880.

This work is a fine example of Legros' portraits of scholars and professors of his time. The sitter is George Wallis who played an important role in the British strategy in art and design on an international level. He was at the end of his life appointed senior keeper of the arts collections in the South Kensington Museum (now V&A). This work shares many affinities with Legros' famous timed head-studies, a method he developed while lecturing at the Slade School. This oil sketch was probably directly drawn and painted after the model in about an hour and a half before an audience of young pupils. The artist gave this portrait to the Museum, probably to enrich its collections of educational materials as the museum included at the time a School of Design.

Physical description

Three quarter profile portrait of an old man facing left, with grey hair, brown eyes, grey bear and unfinished sketchy dark jacket, silhouetted against a neutral beige background.

Place of Origin

London (painted)

Date

ca. 1876-1891 (painted)

Artist/maker

Legros, Alphonse, born 1837 - died 1911 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas

Dimensions

Height: 20.5 in estimate, Width: 16 in estimate

Object history note

Given by the artist, 1892

Historical significance: This painting is a fine example of Legros' portraits. It portrays George Wallis who was probably at the time of the portrait already keeper of the art collection in the South Kensington Museum after having played an important role in the strategic response to the threat of American economic competition, especially in the textile manufactory and design.
This portrait looks very similar to Legros' famous timed studies he performed in front of his pupils in the Slade School and of which the museum owns two exemplars (see 821-1877 and 823-1877). His method was described as followed:
'On stated occasions a special model is ordered, and the professor, standing in the centre of the life school, paints a complete study-head before those students who are sufficiently advanced to be admitted to the life class. His method of work is simple in the extreme; the canvas is grounded with a tone similar to the wall of the room so that no background needs to be painted. […] In about an hour and a half, sometimes in less time, the study is completed, and the watchers have probably learned more in the course of that silent lesson than during three times the amount of verbal instruction.' (The Magazine of Art, vol. 6, 1883).
This method founded the influential 'Slade tradition' of fine draughtsmanship. Legros did many oil sketches of this type, which were extensively copied by his pupils.
Legros was sometimes invited to perform similar life class in other venues. For instance, Legros was invited in 1880 by his friend Sydney Colvin, then director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to paint a timed head-study there. He portrayed then the reverend Robert Burn and gave the study to the Fitzwilliam Museum, which still owns it (Inv. 94*). In this regard it is not unlikely that Legros performed this portrait in public, perhaps in the South Kensington Museum itself which at the time comprises a School of Design.
However there are also a couple of critical accounts of the process: Camille Pissaro (1831-1903) but also Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and John Ruskin (1819-1900) criticised among other things the 'entire absence of relation between the head and the background'. (Sickert, 1947, p. 239).

Historical context note

In his encyclopaedic work, Historia Naturalis, the ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder described the origins of painting in the outlining of a man's projected shadow in profile. In the ancient period, profile portraits were found primarily in imperial coins. With the rediscovery and the increasing interest in the Antique during the early Renaissance, artists and craftsmen looked back to this ancient tradition and created medals with profile portraits on the obverse and personal devise on the reverse in order to commemorate and celebrate the sitter. Over time these profile portraits were also depicted on panels and canvas, and progressively evolved towards three-quarter and eventually frontal portraits.
These portraits differ in many ways from the notion of portraiture commonly held today as they especially aimed to represent an idealised image of the sitter and reflect therefore a different conception of identity. The sitter's likeness was more or less recognisable but his particular status and familiar role were represented in his garments and attributes referring to his character. The 16th century especially developed the ideal of metaphorical and visual attributes through the elaboration of highly complex portrait paintings in many formats including at the end of the century full-length portraiture. Along with other devices specific to the Italian Renaissance such as birth trays (deschi da parto) and wedding chests' decorated panels (cassoni or forzieri), portrait paintings participated to the emphasis on the individual.
Portrait paintings were still fashionable during the following centuries and extended to the rising bourgeoisie and eventually to common people, especially during the social and political transformations of the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century, painted portraits were challenged and eventually supplanted by the development of new media such as photography.

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'George Wallis FSA (1811-1891)', Alphonse Legros, ca. 1876-1891

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Summary Catalogue of British Paintings, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, p. 80-81.
W. Sickert, A free house! Or, The artist as craftsman, Osbert Sitwell ed., London, 1947, p. 239.
W. Rothenstein, Men and memories, recollections, 1872-1938, vol. 1, London, 1978, p. 25.
A. S. Hartrick, A painter's pilgrimage through fifty years, Cambridge, 1939, pp. 7-10.
S. MacDonald, The History and Philosophy of Art Education, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 270-283, esp. 270-273.
G. C. Boase, ‘Wallis, George (1811–1891)’, rev. R. C. Denis, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28570, accessed 25 Feb 2011]

Materials

Oil paint; Canvas

Techniques

Oil painting

Categories

Paintings; Portraits

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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