Put Your Best Foot Forward

Reading press coverage this morning about Catherine Zeta-Jones receiving the CBE, I was struck by the fact that she always looks like a visitor from another, more glamorous age, when women enjoyed being well-dressed, rather than deforming themselves into some sort of infernal amalgamation of streetwalker and sideshow freak. I suspect that not only would she have felt perfectly at home in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but even in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is no stretch to imagine what a “Portrait of the Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, CBE” by John Singer Sargent might look like, or indeed, to stretch back even earlier and envision a portrait by the subject of today’s blog post, the great but often sadly under-appreciated Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The Yale Center for British Art has just opened a new exhibition entitled “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance”, which will run through June 5th. Would that I might find myself among the ivy in order to enjoy this group of remarkable paintings by this equally remarkable painter. Though characterizing Lawrence as a painter of the Regency period, which gave us Jane Austen and John Keats among other notables, is a bit limiting with respect to understanding the sweep of his career.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769 and died in London in 1830, which is important to keep in mind in looking at his art. Admittedly I write this often when discussing artists or architects, but when I provide correlations to general history my hope is to give my readers a general point of reference to the time in which the person lived. Too often art history tends to operate in some sort of vacuum, in which the viewer is not given an idea of what was taking place historically around the same time. Thus, when I point out that Lawrence was born roughly around the start of the American Revolution, was a young man when the French Revolution took place, was entering middle age when Napoleon reached his zenith, and died in the year that train travel between cities first became possible, it should give you some idea of the changes that he observed, first-hand, working during this age of tumult and great changes.

For someone so capable that he eventually rose to be President of the Royal Academy, back when that meant something, readers may be surprised to learn that Lawrence was basically a self-taught genius. Beginning as a child, his facility in capturing people’s appearances using pastels on paper gained him increasing attention, and apparently his accompanying good manners and self-effacing nature charmed many of the society people with whom he gradually came into contact. They in turn would allow him to study the Old Master paintings, drawings and engravings in their private collections, so that Lawrence created his own home-schooled academic experience in studying the history and techniques of great artists.

Lawrence arrived in London when he was 17, and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy, but later left it because he was not interested in drawing and studying classical sculpture. He received his first royal commission, to paint Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, when he was only 20 years old; she didn’t like the picture, but the king did, as did the members of the Royal Academy. This launched his association with the royal family, which was to continue for the rest of his life, and brought him into close contact with many of the most famous and influential people of his day. In 1792, when the great Sir Joshua Reynolds died, he was made President of the Royal Academy when he was just 23 years old.

My Catholic readers may be particularly interested to know that in 1819, George IV commissioned Lawrence to paint a portrait of Pope Pius VII for the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. This may seem rather surprising at first, but King George wanted to honor all of the European leaders who had banded together to help defeat Napoleon. Erring on the side of fairness, he had to include the Pontiff, whose excommunication of Napoleon and subsequent imprisonment had inspired many Catholics to come to the aid of those allied against the little dictator.

Lawrence had a great talent for bringing out what was most attractive about his sitter, often managing to flatter them despite some of their worst features. This is what earns him the sobriquet of being a “society painter”, but too often that term is bandied about by art critics who think that Gilbert & George are anything other than a pair of peasantly perverts. It must be said that Lawrence had his failings as a painter – in particular some of his images of children are not quite right – but when he is good, he is very good indeed. His combination of capturing the personality of his subject and at the same time incorporating elements of landscape painting and details such as the drape of fabric or the texture of a flower through rapid, almost Manet-like brushstrokes, make his images irresistible to all but the most black-hearted of patrons of the arts.

As this blog’s patron Count Castiglione would certainly argue, it is a sign not only of personal self-respect but also of good manners to want to look one’s best, whether when with intimate friends or out and about in public. There is of course a tipping point beyond which we should not go, but Catholics sometimes need to be reminded that even when we are suffering through penance, Christ tells us to look our best:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

(St. Matthew 6: 16-18)

I will freely admit that it is perhaps more than a bit of a stretch to turn from society portraiture to Christian thought, but when we are considering the purpose of art when at its best, I do not believe the connection is really so tenuous. Great portraiture can give us an insight into the character of the sitter, true, but it can also inspire us to be better than we may be at present. The painter who celebrates virtues such as heroism, grace, and intelligence in his art can, when he is good at what he does, cause the viewer to aspire to these virtues as well, even if there is some idealization going on.

And in celebrating these virtues in paint, Lawrence is not behaving in a way foreign to our natural instincts to put forth our best efforts. For example, are you a good cook? Then chances are, you make the food look attractive when you serve it to a guest, so that they will enjoy the meal more than if you simply slopped it out of a pot, even though it would taste the same either way. Because we are not creatures of pure spirit, presentation matters to us: it is a reason why iconoclasm never really makes sense in a full understanding of Christianity, and also why a simple but reverently celebrated mass is usually better at drawing our hearts and minds toward the Divine than either a slapdash “quickie” mass or some bacchanal of tambourines, drums, and hymns like “Rain Down”.

Lawrence may have prettied up his sitters a bit, but in so doing he also showed the people of his day, and indeed shows us now, that whether you are tall or short, fat or thin, handsome or not-so-handsome, you can still be attractive. No one of us is perfect, but putting your best foot forward, whether you are fasting during Lent or receiving an award from your government, is something that can draw people to us and to follow our example. Those of my readers called to be ascetics like St. Mary of Egypt can certainly ignore such advice, but for the majority of us who are not detached from the world, young Catholics need to be aware that we attract others to ask about our way of life if we are not only attractive on the inside, but also on the outside: the former is infinitely more important, but the latter is an opportunity that we can and should take advantage of.

Charles William Vane-Stewart, Marquess of Londonderry
by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1812)
National Portrait Gallery, London
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