Thursday, June 15, 2017

Study of a sailor, c. 1800

Portrait study of a sailor, Robert Williams, 1797-1812.
British Museum.

This fantastic portrait study of a sailor is a great way to compare the stereotypical sailor of a caricature and the idealized sailor of a romantic mezzotint or historical painting to real life. It was done by Philip James de Loutherbourg, the artist who painted "The Battle of the First of June, 1794", studied in the blog earlier in the month.

The provenance note from the British Museum states that "Robert Williams was a Yeoman of the Sheets from Virginia who was promoted to Boatswain of the Osprey sloop on 26 November 1797. (letter from Mrs Sara Cutler, 26 June 2005, in dossier)." The handwritten note at the top of the image (I don't know if it's contemporary to when the image was painted or not) reads "Robt. Williams, boatswains Mate. Venorable once Sailed with Capt. Winthorpe.

Robert Williams certainly looks like a sailor. As in a caricature his hair is short, wavy, and full, with bangs in the front, falling to his shoulders in the back. Short whiskers curl beside his ears, stopping at the lobe. He wears a single-breasted blue jacket (or possibly a coat, since the collar and single-breasted cut are different than many jackets) with one button done up.

Around his neck he wears a voluminous red handkerchief, wrapped in such a way that you can't see the ends so it looks almost like a scarf. The neckline of his sweater ends around his collarbone, showing a hint of blue and white checked shirt underneath. He looks slightly away from the viewer with an ambiguous expression - a wonderful window into what a late 18th or early 19th century sailor actually looked like.

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