Lawrence achieved a knighthood in the spring of 1815, thanks to Prinny’s patronage, and was sent by him to the continent to paint portraits of the heroes and distinguished others of the recent battle of Waterloo – which greatly enhanced his prestige and stature amongst his fellow artists — and he became president of the officially-sanctioned society of artists, the Royal Academy, in 1820, when Prinny ascended to the throne. (The artist arrived back in London in March of 1820 to find that he had succeeded Benjamin West.) Lawrence’s reign as head of the RA was to last only ten years, however; he passed away in 1830, only sixty years old, at the height of his powers.
Like a number of other 18th-century artists, Lawrence’s popularity waned during the Victorian era, but his reputation has revived in the 20th century. The lack of public access to most of his work might have been one of the reasons for his lack of recognition. Nonetheless, several striking portraits have since firmed up his reputation. One of them is of the actress Elizabeth Farren (a full-length portrait in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen below). Farren was a cold and calculating woman of low origins who parlayed her looks and popularity as an actress into aristocratic gold, snagging the wealthy Earl of Derby as her prize. The portrait is stunning; it’s difficult to take one’s eyes away from the tall, willowy woman commanding the space on that canvas.
Arguably his most famous portrait – in terms of recognition by the general art-loving public – is probably the one dubbed Pinkie, which, along with Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, has been much reproduced. (Indeed, they could be veritable bookends, that boy in blue, this girl in pink.) The iconic portrait of this young girl, Sarah Barrett Moulton, was painted in 1794, when Lawrence was in his mid-thirties.
Lawrence was a wonderful painter of very small children as well as of adolescents like Sarah Moulton. One painting many people recognize – though they probably would not be able to identify the artist – is The Calmady Children, painted in 1823, seven years before his death. A charming image much reproduced in greeting cards, it is in this current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.