Connoisseurs examining a collection of George Morland’s
In the corner of a room, five men examine the paintings hung on the two visible walls. On the right, a coarse figure identified at Mr. Mortimer, an art dealer and restorer, spits on one of the paintings and rubs it with his hand. The other four men are identified as well-known connoisseurs. The figure on the left, either Captain Baillie or J.J. Angerstein, holds a pamphlet with the words “Catalog of Pictures by Morl . . .” on the cover; with his right hand, he peers through a pair of eyeglasses held upside down. The figure in the middle also holds a glass up to his eye, while the right-most figure in the group holds a paper on which can be read “Pigs.” The connoisseurs appear to range from middle to old age; they are dressed well, but sloppily. The paintings on the walls satirize the rural scenes of George Morland, depicting grossly fat butchers, farmers, and women; raggedly dressed, rural inhabitants engaged in cruel or licentious behavior; and ignoble farm animals. The paintings are unframed, though one large gilt frame leans against the wall at the connoisseurs’ feet. In front of this frame is a portfolio bulging with papers and labeled “Sketches from Nature by G. Morland,” which may refer to Morland’s practice of reproducing his sketchbooks in volumes of etchings that were sold to the public.
Copyright 2009, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
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This print depicts the practice of viewing art in dealers’ galleries, which arose in London in the eighteenth century. At this time collecting art became more popular with the middle classes, and the art market expanded considerably, as is evidenced by the establishment of auction houses in mid-eighteenth century London and the regular sale of artworks at auctions. In the nineteenth century both private and institutional collecting increased and dealers' galleries multiplied. Viewing art in privately owned (and many publicly owned) galleries was usually a commercial experience, as the works were for sale and because viewers often had to pay a fee to enter the gallery. Consequently, the increase in dealers' galleries is one example of the commercialization of visual culture in the Romantic period, and is evocative of the shift from a system of private art patronage to a public art market.
This print references the figure of the connoisseur, defined as an expert in a specific subject (usually one of the fine arts) or as a critical judge of art and matters of taste. Connoisseurs are often depicted with spectacles or eyeglasses in order to emphasize their gaze, the source of their knowledge and pleasure. They are generally older men, well-dressed but lacking the fashionable extravagance of the dandy. This print depicts recognizable connoisseurs of the time; all the figures are shown in profile as though to emphasize that they are portraits of public figures. From left to right, the men have been identified as 1) either Captain Baillie or J.J. Angerstein, 2) a banker named Mr. Mitchell, 3) Caleb Whitefoord, 4) G. Baker, known as a patron and collector of English watercolor painters, and 5) Mr. Mortimer, an art dealer and restorer.
John Julius Angerstein (1735-1823)
Angerstein was believed to be the illegitimate son of the Empress Anna of Russia and Andrew Poulett Thompson, a merchant. During his career in the City of London, Angerstein amassed a significant fortune and was involved in the establishment of Lloyd’s; he also acquired a reputation as a philanthropist. In 1790, Angerstein began collecting paintings under the guidance of Benjamin West and Thomas Lawrence. He first acquired English pictures, but also took advantage of the dismantling of Continental collections during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. After his death, the British government purchased thirty-eight of Angerstein’s pictures as the foundation of the National Gallery. The government also took over the lease of Angerstein’s town house, 100 Pall Mall, for their display during the construction of the new National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square.
Caleb Whitefoord (1734–1810)
Born and educated in Edinburgh, Whitefoord moved to London and became a successful wine merchant. He was friends and neighbors with Benjamin Franklin, and at the encouragement of the latter became a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1762. He was active in its proceedings for the remainder of his life, serving as a committee chairman and a vice-president. Through his friendship with Joshua Reynolds, Whitefoord also became involved in the affairs of the Royal Academy after its foundation in 1768. He was an amateur artist, and he collected both contemporary and Old Master paintings. He later earned fame as a diplomatist when, in 1782, he went to France to act as an intermediary between Franklin and the British government; he also served for a year as secretary to the commission that concluded peace with the newly formed United States. Whitefoord was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1784 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1791, and in 1805 he helped found the British Institution.
William Baillie (1723-1810)
Baillie was an Irish printmaker and art dealer who served in the British Army from 1742 until 1761, reaching the rank of Captain. In 1763 he visited the Hague to purchase paintings for the Earl of Lonsdale, and many of his prints reproduce Dutch seventeenth-century works in his own or aristocratic collections. Eight editions of his collected prints were published between 1776 and 1824.
George Morland (1763-1804)
The print also makes reference to George Morland, whose pictures are supposedly on view. Morland was a popular artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy. He was known for refusing private commissions, even from the Prince of Wales, preferring the independence of selling his finished pictures to dealers on the open art market. Despite the popularity of his paintings, many of which were engraved and published, he was often in debt and attempting to avoid his creditors. After 1790 Morland began working on larger canvases, producing the many rural and smuggling scenes for which he is particularly well-known. Despite occasional imprisonment for his debts and chronic alcohol abuse, he was an incredibly prolific artist, supposedly painting some eight hundred pictures in the last eight years of his life.
On occasion, engravers chose to make their prints more attractive to potential customers by sentimentalizing the images. In the 1790s Morland also published volumes of etchings that reproduced his sketchbooks. Most of the prints made after Morland’s works were mezzotints and sold at prices ranging from 3s. 6d. to one guinea. The large market that existed for them in Britain, as well as in France and Germany, made him a household name and encouraged a rash of anecdotal biographies that appeared soon after his death.
This scene is presumably set in the commercial gallery of Mr. Mortimer, an art dealer and restorer portrayed on the right, during a temporary exhibition of George Morland’s work. Several commercial art galleries of the time were devoted to Morland's pieces. In 1792, the dealer Daniel Orme opened an extremely successful Morland Gallery in Bond Street, London, with over one hundred of Morland’s works on sale. Around 1793 Mr. Smith also opened a temporary Morland Gallery in London, issuing a catalog of 36 paintings that he planned to reproduce in engravings and publish by subscription (Belsey and Rosenthal).
Two original watercolor studies for this print are held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. This print was reprinted in The Genuine Works of James Gillray (London, 1830).
In this print, a group of connoisseurs examines several paintings. Given that these paintings depict rural subjects, a topic of which the connoisseurs can have little knowledge, the print questions the competency of these professed experts and so satirizes the role of the connoisseur. This satire is furthered by the unappealing renderings of the paintings; their grossness, together with the fact that this was considered "popular" art of the period, suggests that the connoisseurs are being led by public opinion rather than refining it.
The humor of this print lies chiefly in the pictures depicted on the walls, whose subjects parody the rural genre scenes for which Morland was most famous. These paintings of unattractive farm animals and laborers are comically inappropriate objects of interest for the so-called connoisseurs. As well-dressed gentlemen in the urban setting of a commercial art gallery, it seems unlikely that they possess an expert's knowledge of the rural scenes before them; furthermore, their catalogs and eyeglasses suggest that undue interest is being paid to these scenes of relentlessly everyday life. Because the connoisseurs’ interest does not seem warranted by the paintings themselves, the print suggests that it has instead been sparked by the popularity of Morland’s work in a growing art market. It is fitting, then, that the gaze of the connoisseurs seems to be directed by the commercial figure of the art dealer on the right, whose crassness equals that of the paintings he sells. Although the source of a connoisseur’s knowledge and pleasure is his gaze—a comparative gaze that evaluates the works before him in relation to those produced by the same artist or school—the connoisseurs in this print are figuratively blind: they are insensitive to the inappropriate oddity of such coarse rural scenes being used as signs of refinement for the urban art consumer.
This print also speaks to the tensions developing between the private and public roles of art during the Romantic period. Though it failed to meet the standards for public art set by the Royal Academy and exemplified by history painting and grand manner portraiture, connoisseurs were known for promoting Dutch genre painting, preferring the private content and intimate pleasures of the rural or mundane scene. The esoteric opinions of the connoisseurs still managed to occasionally influence public opinion, however, as when J.J. Angerstein extolled the early work of David Wilkie. His favorable comments were soon repeated by critics in the public press and helped contribute to the enormous popularity of Wilkie’s work at the Royal Academy exhibition (Solkin). In contrast, this print emphasizes the potential for herd mentality and hypocrisy among the connoisseurs as a group, suggesting that they are influenced as much by the popular taste of their peers as by their own educated sensibilities. Furthermore, by depicting the social act of viewing art in a private gallery, this print operates as a dialectic between public and private aesthetics. The rural scenes on view exemplify a more popular genre of painting, but they are still oil paintings and would have been considered cabinet pictures: appropriate for hanging in the semi-public or informal areas of a house, or even in the main reception rooms of smaller bourgeois townhouses. However, the paintings are also being represented here in a satirical print that would have been exhibited, not on the wall, but in cradles or portfolios kept in private cabinets, libraries, and informal living areas, easily accessible for casual viewing by individuals or intimate groups. And yet, a print such as this one could have hung in the window of a print shop or in a gallery like that which is depicted, viewed for commercial purposes and circulated as an object in the very practices being satirized. Consequently, the print asserts that supposedly private aesthetic tastes are both socially constituted and publicly displayed, while also representing relatively public artworks and viewing practices in a less formal and arguably more private form.
Allen, Brian. Towards a Modern Art World. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995. Print. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
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---. The Dark Side of the Landscape: the Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. Print.
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---. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Farrar, 1997. 252-87. Print.
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---. Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print. The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
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James Gillray, Connoisseurs Examining a Collection of George Morland’s, November 16, 1807. Hand-colored etching, 15.75 x 12.13 in. (40.01 x 30.8 cm). Gift of the Louis and Annettee Kaufman Trust 2001.116.6
16 November 1807