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Work Portrait of Major James Lee Harvey

Department of Paintings: English painting

Portrait of Major James Lee Harvey

© 1995 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Paintings
English painting

Author(s):
Odin Alice

Raeburn is known for never having done preparatory drawings for his pictures. He began his career as a miniaturist and he had a gift for producing large, decisively painted portraits of men.

A gentle military man

In many cases, the impact of Raeburn's portraits stems from his remarkable economy of means, and in particular from a restricted palette. This is easy to discern in this picture, where the only colors on the canvas are red, white, black, and a few touches of blue in the decorative background. Yet the pose of this military man is in contrast to the formality of the subject. He is not posing in full military dress, simply carrying in one hand his imposing bearskin and in the other his saber. He seems to be at ease, and there is a gentle expression on his face; indeed, a certain joie de vivre can be detected in the major's still youthful features.
The liveliness of Raeburn's brushwork enables him to add original touches such as a vivid and sensuous finish, as can be seen in the material of the uniform or the shininess of the major's boots. This new approach to technique was a novelty unfettered by tradition, and few of Raeburn's contemporaries grasped what he had achieved.

The military portrait

Military portraits were fashionable in England in the eighteenth century, as they allowed portraiture to reflect contemporary political and military conditions. The eighteenth century was a period of colonization and the creation and expansion of the United Kingdom. It was therefore important to depict and display likenesses of the people who had contributed to the stabilization and consolidation of British sovereignty.

A Scotsman in Great Britain

Sir Henry Raeburn began as an apprentice goldsmith and then worked as a miniaturist. At the age of twenty, he met David Martin, Allan Ramsay's principal assistant, who introduced him to the work of the greatest portraitists of the period. Raeburn paid particular attention to spontaneity of pose, as is especially evident in his method of starting a picture without doing a preparatory drawing. He preferred to paint portraits of men, which led to powerful and somewhat brutal representations of military men, men in power, and businessmen, whose masculine personalities shine through. The time Raeburn spent in Italy (1784-86) influenced him greatly.
Raeburn was certainly the greatest Scottish portrait painter, or at least the only portraitist to have established his reputation while working solely in Scotland. Scotland had been joined to England (though not without difficulty) in 1707.

Technical description

  • Sir Henry RAEBURN (Stockbridge [now in Edinburgh], 1756-Edinburgh, 1823)

    Portrait of Major James Lee Harvey

  • Oil on canvas

    H. 2.38 m; L. 1.47 m

  • Gift of the Friends of the Louvre, 1995

    R.F. 1995-9

  • Paintings

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