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Portrait of George Dawe

The English artist George Dawe (1781-1829) was known in Europe as a
fashionable portraitist and master of engravings. He also produced
canvases on historical and mythological themes as well as genre
paintings in the spirit of sentimental Romanticism. Dawe paintrd
portraits of English generals who distinguished themselves in the Battle
of Waterloo. In 1818 the artist was present in Aachen at the Congress of
the heads of the states that entered the Holy Alliance. There he was
introduced to Alexander I and the Russian emperor invited him to Russia
to work on the portaits for the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter
Palace.

After his arrival in Petersburg in the spring of 1819, George Dawe
stayed in the capital for 10 years. During this time he produced 333
portraits for the Gallery, some by himself, some together with his
Russian pupils Vasily (Wilhelm) Golike (died in 1848) and Alexander
Polyakov (1801-1835). In the autumn of 1820 a small exhibition of George
Dawe’s works was arranged at the Academy of Arts, which was a great
success. After that he was elected an honorary member of the Petersburg
Academy of Arts. From this time on many members of the tsarist family,
courtiers and ministers, high-born noblemen and officers of the Guards
began to commission their portraits from Dawe. The artist managed to
paint all of them.

Portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna

George Dawe

It is interesting to note that none of Dawe’s contemporaries left us a
description of the way he looked and behaved, since he lived in
seclusion. Dawe tirelessly worked in Petersburg, spent many hours at his
easel either in the palace studio or in the wealthy homes of his
clients.

At the beginning Dawe worked alone, but then he created a workshop.
First there came from England his son-in-law Thomas Wright and his
younger brother Henry Dawe, who did engravings after George Dawe’s
paintings. These engravings were in great demand. They were bought by
the persons portrayed who gave them as gifts to their relatives, as well
as by their colleagues, institutions they headed and by the educational
establishments where they had studied.

In 1822 two assistants joined Dawe’s studio: Alexander Polyakov and
Vasily (Wilhelm) Golike. Although all the portraits were entered in the
Hermitage’s catalogue as works by George Dawe, there are obvious
stylistic differences among them. Undoubtedly some of them were not
painted by Dawe himself but by some of his assistants. In 1828 Dawe was
granted the title of the first portrait painter of the Russian Imperial
court and soon he left Petersburg. At that time the master was a member
of the Petersburg and London Academies of Arts; he was also elected to
the Vienna, Florence, Paris, Munich, Dresden and Stockholm Academies.

In February 1829 Dawe returned to Petersburg to do a life-size portrait
of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich and to finish several other portraits
for the Gallery. His sharply deteriorating health forced him to leave
for London, where he died in October 1829.

Portrait of Emperor Alexander I

George Dawe

After Dawe’s death his son-in-law Thomas Wright, who had arrived in
Russia to look after the artist’s inheritance, completed three portraits
of generals which Dawe had begun as well as the portrait of Grand Duke
Konstantin Pavlovich.

View of the Embankment of Vasilyevsky

Island by the Academy of Arts from the Neva

The many comments of contemporaries reveal that the surprising thing in
Dawe’s artistry was his ability to convey precisely the appearance of
his models, as well as his skill. «The mechanical manner of his hand is
quite specific: his brushstrokes are broad, bold, quick, though too
quick in applying paints, sometimes it seems that he doesn’t touch them
at all. Thus, all of Dawe’s portraits appear to be works a la prima,
like sketches…» This is how Pavel Svinyin decribed Dawe’s technique in
the Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland) magazine in 1820.
The theatrical and Romantic inspiration of the compositions and the
sketchy approach which often could be confused with carelessness, evoked
some dissatisfaction among art critics who nevertheless reserved their
highest epithets for Dawe.  

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