Sir Henry Raeburn (Scottish, 1756–1823),
Portrait of Mrs. Andrew (Elizabeth Robinson) Hay
, ca. 1795
oil on canvas, 49½ x 39 in.; 125.1 x 99.06 cm
Museum purchase, Joslyn Endowment Fund, 1941.40
Orphaned as a child, Henry Raeburn became apprenticed to an Edinburgh goldsmith at sixteen and soon after found his calling painting portrait miniatures. Raeburn seems to have been a largely self-taught artist. Although he studied in Rome from 1784 to 1786, his work and ambition were certainly more marked by the example of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom he met in London before his departure for Italy. By the end of the late 1780s, Raeburn was well established as the leading portrait painter in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. His broadly brushed yet penetrating portraits commemorate many well-known figures of this notable period in his country’s history, among them Sir Walter Scott.
This portrait of Mrs. Andrew Hay (wife of a major general during the Napoleonic Wars) is an excellent example of Romantic portraiture, stressing a subjective rather than a documentary approach to the sitter. The most striking painterly aspects associated with early nineteenth-century Romanticism can be seen in Raeburn's use of color and immediateness of technique. The willful yet subtle play between complementary orange hues in the background and blues in the chair and costume are mediated and balanced by the neutral expanses of the sitter’s grayish white dress. Raeburn's method of painting directly on the canvas without preparatory drawings, seen most clearly in the loose brushwork of the imaginary landscape, creates a contemplative, poetic mood, a quality further heightened by the autumnal tones and use of stony shadow on the face.
The companion work to Joslyn's portrait, a likeness of her husband, Major General Andrew Hay, also by Raeburn, is in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The general was killed at the Battle of Bayonne on April 14, 1814, in an engagement between the British and the French.