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Oil painting - Head of a man looking upwards and sideways
  • Head of a man looking upwards and sideways
    Legros, Alphonse, born 1837 - died 1911
  • Enlarge image

Head of a man looking upwards and sideways

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    London (made)

  • Date:

    1876-1877 (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:


  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 21a, The Dorothy and Michael Hintze Galleries

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’ timed head-studies, a method he developed while lecturing at the Slade School. This oil sketch was 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 V&A at the time called South Kensington Museum included a School of Design.

Physical description

Head of a man with curly brown hair looking upwards and sideways, silhouetted against a neutral beige background.

Place of Origin

London (made)


1876-1877 (painted)


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

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 21 in estimate, Width: 17.75 in estimate

Object history note

Given by the artist, 1877

Historical significance: This painting is a fine example of Legros' time studies he performed in front of his pupils in the Slade School. 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 and 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 the 'entire absence of relation between the head and the background'. (Sickert, 1947, p. 239).

Historical context note

An oil sketch is a type of painted work of small dimensions that first appeared in the 16th century. It derives from the Renaissance practice of preparatory drawings in pen and ink and is generally executed as a preparatory study in mixed oil and tempera for a finished larger work as an alternative to drawings. The finish of these studies, often called modello, can be more or less refined. The earliest known oil sketches are by Polidoro da Caravaggio (ca. 1497-ca. 1543) but the technique spread quickly among the artists including Federico Barocci (1528-1612), Cristofano Allori (1577-1621), Tintoretto (1519-1594 ) and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664 ) and became an important feature of the Baroque art. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) for example is one of the greatest examples of Baroque artists' use of the oil sketch and contributed to introduce its practice in Flanders. This method benefits to both artists and patrons as not only the artists were able to present and promote their work through these support but the patrons could also request an oil sketch to evaluate a project at an early stage. Sometimes considered as a works of art in se, oil sketches were also offered by the artists to connoisseurs. Oil sketches were still favoured during the Rococo and the Romantic period but at the end of the 19th century, the artists tent to paint more and more directly on the support, abandoning thus gradually the oil sketch in its function as a preparatory study.

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'Head of a Man Looking Upwards and Sideways', Alphonse Legros, 1876-1877

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. 223.
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. 6-10.
S. MacDonald, The History and Philosophy of Art Education, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 270-283, esp. 270-273.


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted



Paintings; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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