Creative Cauldron - Sir Henry Raeburn

Monday, May 14, 2012

Artist inspiration and artist influences. No biographies, dates or scholarly research here -  this is a personal response to the work of Sir Henry Raeburn by Australian artist Fiona Morgan.

While I was living in Edinburgh I became fascinated with the stories of the very very many inventive and creative Scots of times past from that city. You may be amazed at just how many breakthroughs we take for granted in modern life were Scottish in origin. Sir Henry Raeburn, as a venerated citizen of Edinburgh, came to my attention.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Anne Raeburn
Anne Raeburn
 It is as much Henry Raeburns' story as his paintings that catch my admiration. He was an outsider to the art establishment, who did the work necessary to become a great painter. Let me summarise:

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - William Robertson, Lord Robertson
William Robertson, Lord Robertson
 Henry Raeburn began his working life as an apprentice goldsmith. For a bit of context, his era was 1756-1823 in Edinburgh, Scotland. As part of the job he was required to paint miniature portraits, for which it turned out he had some talent. His employer introduced him to Edinburgh's leading portrait artist of the day who gave him advice and loaned him pictures to practice copying.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry
Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry
 He decided to become a portrait artist himself. To increase his skill he sought advice from the best artists in Britain and travelled to Italy to study the paintings there, as recommended. After two years of travel and study he returned to Edinburgh and established his portrait painting business, for which he built his own studio. He was successful and well regarded.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Commander Hugh Clapperto
Commander Hugh Clapperton

A bad business investment bankrupted him but did not stop him. He painted his way out of debt, recovered his fortune and ended up being knighted.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Elizabeth Campbell Marchesa di Spineto
Elizabeth Campbell Marchesa di Spineto
 I love his story of perseverance, discipline, study and hard work (with a dash of entrepreneurial chutzpah) that took him from being an orphan with nothing and a complete outsider to the art establishment, to a technically accomplished and wealthy painter of portraits of high society.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Elizabeth Hamilton
Elizabeth Hamilton
Onto his actual painting. Usually this quite old (some would say classic) style of painting bores me silly. Yes, yes, I admire and appreciate the technical ability, but the murky shadows, highly dramatised lighting, period dress and stiffness of the sitters just fails to fill me with enthusiasm.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Miss Eleanor Urquhart
Miss Eleanor Urquhart
However, I do enjoy Raeburn's painting. He only painted from life, and I think it shows through in the way each sitter has a personality and a believably real pose.
Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Mrs R. Scott Moncrieff
Mrs R. Scott Moncrieff
The skin of the subjects in his paintings glow with light. The portraits are of live people! And although the highly dramatised lighting does irritate me (on some days, depending on what I've had for breakfast), I appreciate that the way the light is used to focus your eye is very effective. I find the full range of light to dark contrasts makes for bold, strong work.

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch
Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch
I enjoy the sumptuous texture of the clothing in his paintings which is just tight enough to convey the fabric. In this way that he used his brushstrokes he was ahead of his time, with a confident and masterful square brush technique sometimes bordering on the modern bravura handling so popular today (both which enthrall me).

Sir Henry Raeburn painting - Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott

More Sir Henry Raeburn links

About the Creative Cauldron series of posts

Creative Cauldron - artistic influences & inspiration for Australian artist Fiona MorganThe Creative Cauldron series of posts explores and showcases the visual styles, techniques, attitudes, ideas, artists and paintings that have had the most impact on me. 

The rest of the series is accessible via the Creative Cauldron page. Have a meander if you please, and remember to check out my artworks on Flickr, and have an insider peek at life as an artist on Facebook.

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