Henry Raeburn's Portraits of Distant Sons in the Global British Empire

By Coltman, Viccy | The Art Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Henry Raeburn's Portraits of Distant Sons in the Global British Empire


Coltman, Viccy, The Art Bulletin


The delineation of likeness and its subsequent recognition in represented lineaments figure prominently in critiques of die production and consumption of historical portraiture. Whereas the artist seeks to capture a living presence that is simultaneously and contradictorily manifest and elusive, viewers of portraits scrutinized the finished product with a familiarity that was often predicated on their social proximity to die sitter-subject - and that included the sitters themselves. Hence, we find a modulated array of responses to historical portraiture on canvas and in stone in which the portrait is judged against its sitter-subject and is variously found to be absent, matching, or exceeding them. Among attempts by art historians to discuss likeness as a critical category, arguably the most damning is from Ernst Gombrich, who, in an essay on perceptual psychology entitled "The Mask and die Face," makes the following sweeping statement: "Somehow concern with likeness in portraiture bears the stamp of philistinism."1 In other words, his perception of physiognomic likeness as a critical concept is characterized by its patent lack of criticality. Richard Brilliant is more circumspect in his analysis of "an imprecise, but value-laden term": he situates a degree of likeness as a "requisite quotient of resemblance," a concept that is "a variable measure of acknowledged subjectivity."2 For Marcia Pointon, "Likeness ... is a shifting commodity, not an absolute point of reference; it is an ideal to be annexed, rather than a standard by which to measure reality."' This is especially pronounced in the study of historical portraiture, where there is no natural, objective self against which the portrait as a pictorial representation of that self can be measured.4 Few would disagree that the pursuit of likeness as an empirical physiognomic exercise is futile for art historians having few surviving, objective controls against which to measure the veracity of the painted or sculpted face.

Disciplinary blunders - such as endorsing the mapping of life onto art or vice versa - only hinder the study of historical portraiture. Discussions of later eighteendi- and early nineteenth-century portraits of children and depictions of childhood also suffer from the worrying persistence of ahistorical obfuscations between art and life. Such a reading is ill-conceived as an art historical methodology, when it was in fact a symptom of the consumption of portraiture in the historical context of the British Empire in the early nineteenth century. Brilliant's formulation of the "limitations of likeness," in which falsity "as a failure of complete correspondence . . . [is] an essential ingredient in the concept of likeness," can be countered with the possibilities of likeness as a fundamental expectation of portraiture, an affective category in the temporal and geographic dislocations that was the lived reality of empire.5 A close reading of seven portraits of members of a Scottish gentry family, the Fräsers of Reelig from the Highlands near Inverness, that were painted by the leading Edinburgh portrait painter, Henry Raeburn, between 1800 and 1816 offers die prospect of historicizing likeness on these terms. With half-length representations of the father, Edward Satchwell Fraser, his five sons - James Baillie, William, Edward, Alexander, and George John - and one daughter, Jane Anne, gender soon emerges as a vital point of reference and divergence highlighting "the dichotomies and inequalities between male and female experience."0 No portrait of the wife and mother, Jane, was ever part of the protracted commission, nor of the two other daughters, Mary and Jane Catherine, who did not survive into adulthood. Because the portraits were dispersed at auction in 1897, they have never previously been considered as a discrete group in Raeburn's prolific portrait practice. Wider debates about Scots in empire and portraiture in late Enlightenment Edinburgh provide a context for the Fraser portraits, as does the notion of die mutable adolescent male portrait.

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