“Sir Robert Peel,” attributed to George Henry Harlow (1787-1819): a formal analysis

The first writing assignment in ART 3663: History of American Art this semester was a formal analysis of a colonial-era portrait from the collection of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. Last time I taught the class, students wrote about a later, twentieth-century portrait by George Luks. This semester, thanks to the ongoing work of the OSUMA staff, we were able to bring a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century portrait, attributed to British artist George Henry Harlow, out of storage and in front of the scrutinizing eyes of students, faculty, and staff.

Attributed to George Henry Harlow (English, 1787–1819), “Sir Robert Peel,” date unknown. Oil on canvas, Salmon Collection.

Colonial portraiture was used to tell a story about the person in the painting and about the views they wanted to express about themselves. For the most part, colonial portraiture followed a simple formula of artistic and iconographical devices that would have been easily readable by the viewer, thus allowing them to interpret the portrait in the desired way. The portrait Sir Robert Peel, attributed to George Henry Harlow, follows this formula, allowing the viewer to interpret the portrait and understand what Sir Robert Peel wanted his audience to know about his life and public image—without knowing any facts about him. — Stephanie Dunn

Attributed to George Henry Harlow (English, 1787–1819), “Sir Robert Peel,” date unknown. Oil on canvas, Salmon Collection. Detail of hands and table.

Harlow’s use of detail is the first clue of what is most important in this portrait, the most detailed portion being the subject, Sir Robert Peel. The first impression is of a well groomed, highly regarded English man of stature, a statesman or military officer. Everything from the style of brushwork to the finesse and size of Harlow’s strokes indicates Peel’s importance. The highlighted and swooshing treatment of his hair tells the audience that he was refined and tailored. The hairs seem to be perfectly placed as if he was not acquainted with any hard labor. More evidence of Peel’s refinement is the display of the different materials of his attire impeccably illustrated by Harlow’s brushwork. The scarf around his neck appears to be silk, while the fur collar of his jacket exhibits almost perfect reflections that create its lifelike texture, accomplished by using a dry brush technique. Harlow’s detailed treatment of Peel places him in the forefront as the most important figure, but the attention given to the detail of the box he is leaning on brings the viewer’s eye to it immediately after Peel. Harlow’s attention to detail on this box, as opposed to that of the tablecloth upon which the box is placed, reveals that the box has some significance. — Annasthaeyzsia Samuel

Attributed to George Henry Harlow (English, 1787–1819), “Sir Robert Peel,” date unknown. Oil on canvas, Salmon Collection. Detail of hand at waist.

Harlow used his artistic skills to show that Sir Robert Peel was a man of importance, class and education. The elements in Harlow’s painting that denote Peel’s prestige are the hat with feathers, luxurious fabrics, paper in his right hand, a locked box, and the key to the box that is hanging from his belt. There is a luxurious Turkish carpet resting on a table as well as thick red velvet curtain hanging behind Peel. The quality of the carpet and curtain suggest that Peel is wealthy and educated about other cultures. The box sitting on the table gave a confusing aspect in this portrait. What is in the box? Why it is locked? Upon further investigation it appears that the key to the box is attached to Peel’s belt, suggesting his power and control over the empire that he governs as Prime Minister. This subtle move goes almost unnoticed. — Crystal Labrosse

Attributed to George Henry Harlow (English, 1787–1819), “Sir Robert Peel,” date unknown. Oil on canvas, Salmon Collection. Detail of curtain, column and landscape.

The color palette used in this portrait appears to represent the modesty of Sir Robert Peel’s character in his simple and colorless clothing. One can assume his black vest, covered by a long brown coat and accompanied by beige pants, white collar, and simple gold accessories, shows an aspect of Peel’s lifestyle in being simple, not extravagant, and more into his work than his dress. Quite the opposite can be said of his background. The nearly cliché red curtain lies in a natural way from the ceiling. Not only does it create the “theatre-style” scenery and frame for the portrait, but it adds drama, color, and additional character to the painting. Without it, the sitter would be lost amid the plain background. Other additions of color—the architectural column, the tablecloth, the landscape—add extra life to this portrait. — Christopher Mathis

John Singleton Copley, “Nicholas Boylston,” 1767. Oil on canvas, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

Sir Robert Peel is a youthful man. His skin is firm and his hair is only just beginning to gray. His contrapposto stance is relaxed and he seems approachable. Since Peel [was] a political figure, it [was] appropriate for him to appear this way. Peel’s attire is not flamboyant, though it does demonstrate his wealth. He wears a long jacket and waistcoat. The collar of his jacket is lush and reflective. Possibly, it is made from velvet. The waistcoat is double breasted with gold buttons that reflect a light source that appears from the upper left corner, beyond the picture plane. These materials demonstrate Peel’s wealth subtly, unlike Copley’s portrait of Nicholas Boylston, in which the subject’s wealth is absurdly pronounced. Where Boylston’s gaze is confrontational, Peel’s gaze leads the viewer off the canvas to an unknown subject. Peel’s expression is simple, and his large, wide eyes are sincere. — Casey Pankey

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington (Lansdowne portrait),” 1796. Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Sir Robert Peel’s angled pose can be compared to George Washington’s angled pose in Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of 1796. If the viewer were interacting with Washington, then by the angle of his body and the direction of his gaze, the viewer would be slightly ahead of and to the right of Washington. One of the Rules of Civility, copied by Washington, is to “Place yourself on the left of whom you desire to Honour.” Peel also places the viewer ahead of him and to his right, which allows him to show his manners since he is holding the viewer in a higher place of honor than himself. — Stephanie Dunn

Attributed to George Henry Harlow (English, 1787–1819), “Sir Robert Peel,” date unknown. Oil on canvas, Salmon Collection. Detail of Peel’s face.

The brightest and therefore most important portion of the portrait is Peel’s face. The glowing brightness of his face helps signify youth and also hints at his level of education or intelligence. He appears to be enlightened and pensive. His pale coloring adds to the sense that he is an elite rather than a laborer. Just as the light reveals what is most important, so too do the shadows cast on the wall, the curtain, and the sky outside further cement their less important status. — Annasthaeyzsia Samuel

Attributed to George Henry Harlow (English, 1787–1819), “Sir Robert Peel,” date unknown. Oil on canvas, Salmon Collection. Details of eyes and cuff.

Harlow’s facture contributes to the fact that the figure alone is the only visual element to be subjectively excavated and contemplated. His brushwork brings the figure to prominence in that this area of the canvas is the only part where committed alla prima highlights are applied. The highlights of the eyes and the cuffs of Peele’s shirt pop into three-dimensionality more than the rest of the painting, whereas the brown underpainting carries more of the background and is thinner and less prominent. Here Harlow employs the technique of atmospheric perspective, where the greater range of value in the foreground attracts focus, and the background, which is closer to middle-gray in value, serves only as an exalting device. — Morgan McClellan

As always, you can click on any of the images to see a larger version. Harlow’s portrait of Peel will remain on view—in the main office of the Art Department, in the Bartlett Center for the Visual Arts—through the middle of October. Come test the students’ analyses against your own!

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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