Not currently on display at the V&A

Thomas Huxley, FRS

Oil Painting
1880 (painted)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

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 Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist and science educationist, known for his scientific studies on microstructures and his role in granting access to scientific education to women. 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 executed during a single sitting, which took place sometimes between February and August 1880 when the painting was given to the Museum by the artist.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Oil on canvas
Brief Description
Oil painting, 'Thomas Huxley, FRS', Alphonse Legros, 1880
Physical Description
Frontal portrait of a man with dark grey hair, brown eyes, grey sideburns in an unfinished sketchy dark jacket with a white shirt, silhouetted against a neutral greyish background.
Dimensions
  • Approx. height: 18.5in
  • Approx. width: 14.5in
Dimensions taken from Summary catalogue of British Paintings, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973
Styles
Credit line
Given by the artist
Object history
Given by the artist, 1880



Historical significance: This painting is a fine example of Legros' portraits. It portrays Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), a biologist and science educationist. Huxley held a laboratory teaching in South Kensington Museum from 1871-1878, which proved very successful as it granted access to women as well. Thanks to his daughters who all went to the Slade School of Fine Art at University College and later respectively married the architect Fred Waller (1846-1933) and the artist John Collier (1850-1934), Huxley's home became the place of gathering of the liberal intelligentsia including people such as Robert Browning (1812-1889) and the artist Briton Rivière (1840-1920).

Robert Browning on 8 Feb 1880 wrote to T.H. Huxley (Imperial College, London, Huxley Papers, vol. 11, f.122 quoted by Dr Adrian Desmond, written communication, Jan 2000) asking him to sit for Legros, and on 10 Feb 1880 (vol. 11, f.124) acknowledges Huxley's acceptance. The letters hint that Huxley's portrait was done in a single sitting.

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. This technique, although used for centuries by European artists, astonished the Victorians (MacDonald, 2004).

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*).

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
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.
Subject depicted
Summary
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 Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist and science educationist, known for his scientific studies on microstructures and his role in granting access to scientific education to women. 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 executed during a single sitting, which took place sometimes between February and August 1880 when the painting was given to the Museum by the artist.
Bibliographic References
  • 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.
  • Adrian Desmond, ‘Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825–1895)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14320, accessed 25 Feb 2011]
Collection
Accession Number
369-1880

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record createdApril 16, 2007
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