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The Glory of the Met: Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City deserved far more time than the afternoon we had allocated to it when we went there in March. This we knew upon entry. There was no way we could explore in any depth every section of the museum. Since we had already visited the MoMA, my wish was to take in the Old Masters and the Impressionists. Off we went.

I was, of course, not disappointed.  No one can be unmoved by a live view of High Renaissance paintings, and the Degas and Renoir were just amazing. But as we were roaming from room to room, feeling a bit lightheaded, we chanced upon a room of English Romantic paintings. Frankly, this was not something I would have sought out, given our time constraints.

I came upon “The Calmady Children,” (1823) by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830) was a portrait painter of the wealthy and an official painter of the Royals, with an unusual biography. He was self-taught, the son of an innkeeper, and a child prodigy. His first royal commission was at the age of 18, of the Queen Charlotte. His reputation as a portrait painter was unparalleled for his lifetime, and he lived a life of a bon vivant. There are books devoted to his love affairs, which included a devotion to two sisters, Sally and Mary Siddons. He later became president of the Royal Academy, and died suddenly at the age of 60, after a life filled with much professional success.

When I saw the painting, I was drawn to the eyes of the young girls. In person, they truly sparkle. Another Lawrence painting was right next to it – same thing. I just couldn’t stop looking at them. I got up close and tried to determine how, among all the paintings I had seen that day, this artist make me stop dead in my tracks. I decided his use of whites, in the eyes and other parts of the painting, had something to do with it. Another one of his paintings was right next to it, and it also drew me in.

The dramatic portrayal of nature and emotion are hallmarks of Romantic era painting, and I can see why this is something that appealed to me. But there were other painters in the room that did not nearly generate the same effect as Lawrence. And looking at the photo I took, which really is a pretty good representation of the painting, I cannot see quite what I saw when I was standing in front of it. Painting is not my primary art form, and if there is one thing I learned from this trip, seeing a print in a book pales in comparison to seeing a painting in person.

Another theme I’ve been exploring in these posts is the cult of the artist. Sometimes, the ultra-famous reputation of an artist is deserved. Sometimes, not so much. Perhaps it was the unusual circumstances or deeds outside of their work that added to the glamour of their fame; often dumb luck was a clear factor. And now we wear down the grooves of their fame, or infamy, again and again.

He did not paint landscapes, religious scenes, or any of the other subjects that bring recognition to the greats. But I am happy to carve Sir Thomas Lawrence’s groove a little deeper.