A quick break in radio silence to share some images of a couple of tremendous Rowlandson watercolours that have come to my attention this afternoon.
Both paintings are comic grotesques that reflect Rowlandson’s lifelong interest in the pseudo-science of physiognomy. In the early 1790s Rowlandson had begun copying some of the expressive heads originally produced by the French court portraitist Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802), who visited London in 1791. Ducreux was a committed physiognomist and was heavily influenced by the ideas of Johan Capar Lavater, author of the period’s most influential publication on physiognomy: Physiognomische Fragmente (1778), which was available in a heavily-illustrated English edition from 1789, re-titled Essays on Physiognomy.
Lavater sought to convince his readers that physiognomy was a serious branch of natural philosophy and to provide them with a reliable methodology for deriving conclusions about a person’s character from their physical appearance. Rowlandson was heavily influenced by these ideas and even began working on his own publications of physiognomy and comparative anatomy towards the end of his life.
The design possibly draws some of its inspiration from George Bickham the Younger’s famous caricature The late Prime Minister (1743) which was itself based on an earlier etching by José de Ribera (1591 – 1642).
Unholy Matrimony (1821) reflects the apparently limitless enthusiasm which the artist seems to have had for images which dealt with the relationships between men and women. Love and sexual gratification were strictly for the young and the beautiful in Rowlandson’s world and consequently elderly characters tend to be typecast as hen-pecked husbands, shrewish wives, gullible cuckolds or frustrated voyeurs.
Unlike many of the half-finished sketches and rough watercolours that appear in the market, it is obvious that these paintings are delicately executed pieces of art that were produced for a commercial purpose. No doubt they were originally produced for one of the handful of wealthy patrons and collectors that Rowlandson was fortunate enough to cultivate during his lifetime.