A chance find in a German sale-room proved to be a little better than the auctioneer had suggested… Benjamin Hebbert lucks out.
My luck was in one evening, surfing the usual channels and coming across a painting of Nicolo Paganini for sale in a German auction room. In a general paintings sale, although the sitter and probable artist were recognised, it was a dark and potentially ugly painting of a man sufficiently famous to be the subject of endless preferable images. I could well understand why the average picture dealer would baulk at the prospect of flogging it. Needless to say, it had more interest to me and I went for it.
It was an immediately recognisable theme, George Patten’s famous 1833 portrait but a half rather than three-quarter length version, and with various oddities that seemed out of place. A quick look at the back of the canvas and I knew from the stretchers and the colour of the canvas that I was looking at something from the nineteenth century and for the price, it was just worth having as an old image of the world’s greatest violinist. After all, Charles Beare had a similar French portrait from life as the centrepiece of his showroom, and W.E. Hill & Sons owned the iconic 1833 Patten original portrait that hung prominently in their New Bond Street shop. It’s always good to keep up with the Joneses, and if I couldn’t have the same calibre of Strads in my safe, the next best thing would be to rival them with a good painting or two.
I had to wait a few months for the painting to be delivered, and by the time it arrived I already had serious questions in my mind. Patten’s portrait had been the sensation of the Royal Academy 1833 season, and as a career-defining work the artist had kept it all his life. After his death in 1865 the painting was acquired by William Ebsworth Hill, and there it remained until the 1995 when it was sold at auction and disappeared from view. Along the way, Paganini had begged for a copy of the painting, which he considered his favourite likeness and described as a “precious record to posterity” . This and a later (and not very good) Italian copy remained with the Paganini family. Finally the Hills published an engraving of the painting executed by Malcolm Osborne RA the twentieth century, although this is hardly relevant as it post dates the time that the painting was made. It occurred to me that if my newfound version was a copy, then there would likely be similar copies knocking about in conservatoire collections across the world. There weren’t. The portrait had been kept so privately through the majority of the nineteenth century that the idea of this being some kind of derivative image was the more unlikely of all the options. Was I in possession of … did I have? What would I find when the painting was eventually delivered to me?
George Patten came from a family of portrait miniaturists, and he was highly accomplished in that field before retraining as an portrait painter in oil, and it was the combination of both skills that gave him his reputation within the English art scene, and hence the quality of his paintings comes out the most in its detail. Photographs that I have seen of the 1833 portrait show exquisite detail in Paganini’s embroidered green silk cravat, in the associated jewellery and in the execution of Paganini’s cherished medal of the Legion d’Honneur. Here the medal is more impressionistic, and there is no desire on Patten’s part to involve himself in the intricacies of the cravat which is a painting as plain black silk instead. If we were looking at a copy we may at least expect the painter to retain the same colour scheme or to convey something of the fine detail. The decisions by the painter point away from the idea of the painting being a copy and to being something else.
The clues come in the head, which is slightly wide and distorted – a very typical consequence of an artist working from two slightly differing perspectives from one side and the other of a large canvas. It is the kind of weakness that is found in a preparatory study that the painter would resolve in the final version. If the painter was simply copying another painting this would not occur because even if they were working from both sides of the easel, their study would be a flat, two dimensional image. Then there was the hair: The 1833 portrait has Paganini’s characteristic long and straggling hair, so important to the way he curated his image that he even appears with it on the 1832 medal struck for his Legion d’Honneur. In this version, he is rather tidier than we expect, and the hair seems well trimmed and lifted off the face in what seems to be a more mainstream fashion – what we would expect of the Duke of Wellington and the many portraits of the era that were fashioned in his shadow.
This isn’t quite the whole story because under a strong light we can see that the long strands of hair were always there, but have been painted over. The effect is to take away the sense of gothic drama and to better reveal the face. If Patten was trying to discover the man within the image of Paganini, this deflection from his curated image would have been an important step in his development of the RA portrait of 1833. Under ultra-violet light we can clearly see how the hair has been blocked out.
Closer in, pentimento are visible where the jawline has been reinforced after the hair was blocked out. Similarly the pupils of the eyes have been over painted to make them more prominent. For those interested in Paganini’s medical problems – either Marfan’s syndrome or his chronic dental issues, the way that the right cheek is redefined in particular seems to offer some evidence of the artists desire to capture Paganini’s marked facial distortion. The odd imbalance transmits through to the final RA portrait.
The result is that everything points directly towards this being the original preparatory study from life – the actual interview between the artist and the musician that took place in Patten’s London studio in 1832, with the fast strokes and impressionistic approach being the means to capture the sitter in a short time. What turned up as potentially an anomalous reproduction turns out to have an intimate authenticity as a testament to Paganini’s character, in many ways a more honest appraisal of him than the choreographed final masterpiece.
The result is that everything points directly towards this being the original preparatory study from life – the actual interview between the artist and the musician that took place in Patten’s London studio in 1832.
In 1832 George Patten was one of an upcoming group of British portrait painters working under the influence of Thomas Lawrence. Patten had first trained as a miniaturist, following in the trade of his father, a miniature portrait of whom he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819 three years after becoming a student at the Royal Academy. Despite a flourishing career as a miniaturist, in 1828 he took the unusual step of re-entering the schools of the Royal Academy in order to learn to become a portrait painter in oils. Hence he was a well-established figure amongst the Royal Academy in the early 1830s and simultaneously a portrait painter at the outset of the new course of his career. As a result, the opportunity to paint Nicolo Paganini on his visit to London in 1832 and to exhibit the portrait at the RA in 1833 was a career-making moment. According to Royal Academy’s own catalogue, this was the first portrait of the violinist ever made. For the rest of his life he kept the portrait for it’s importance as his seminal work, and establishing his reputation. He refused to part with the work and Paganini himself was so impressed with the painting that he begged Patten for a copy of it.
It is worth being circumspect about the claim that this was the first portrait that Paganini ever sat for. It appears to be true in terms of a formal painting in oils, though it is by no means his earliest image, coming instead amongst a plethora of depictions of the legendary violinist. We know of various images of Paganini that date from earlier than 1832 – Ingres image of the young Paganini from 1816 exists as a pencil sketch only, and an engraved frontispiece portrait exists by N.H . Jacob in Guyot’s Notice sur le célèbre violiniste Nicolo Paganini published in Paris, 1830 to precede his first visit to France. Meanwhile the sculptor André Bovy had created the profile bust for the Paganini Parisiensis Praedicant et Orbis medal, which circulated in various forms through France from 1831. With these in mind it is important to be circumspect about the place of Patten’s portrait in the context of Paganini iconography as we regard it today. Yet it seems that there was a strong artistic response to Paganini’s arrival in Britain.
Oil paintings exist from 1831, the first by Eugene Delacroix memorialising the 9 March performance at the Paris Opera whilst in London Daniel Maclise’s sketches of Paganini give rise to the portrait belonging to the Dover Town Museum (on loan to the RAM) dated to that year with Paganini with all but one of his strings broken. In truth, even the Delacroix is an imagined memory of Paganini rather than a formal sitting in the studio. Paganini’s arrival to Edinburgh in October 1831 gave rise to the sculptor, Henry Westmacott producing his little-known bust of the composer that languishes in the vaults of the Victoria and Albert Museum – an outstanding work of Neo-Classical imagery.
With the arrival of Paganini in Paris in 1830, the portraits of old became replaced by two quite different themes. David d’Anger’s bust of that year sets in motion a truly gothic imagination of Paganini’s powers and his soul, something readily repeated by Delacroix and Dantan in their successive images of the virtuoso. Byron’s Fragment of a Novel published in 1819 had taken Walpole’s gothic sentiments to a new level, immediately influencing William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Certainly Paganini appears to have drawn himself to this kind of aesthetic: The endless numbers of silhouette drawings of the lanky virtuoso produced by local artists across the breadth of the UK all seem to play into this astonishing image. The rumours that he sold his soul to the devil certainly fit well with the tortured image that he projected, and made sense in a world where the literary ideas of vampires and Dr Frankenstein’s monster were the dark conclusion of a hitherto romantic movement. And yet, just as Byron remained inexorably linked to the idyll of his earlier romantic works, the image of Paganini as some kind of Neo-Classical hero seems to have remained as valid and significant to his audiences. Arguably Byron and Paganini merged into facets of the same archetype of the wandering poet, which is why Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, commissioned in 1834, seats Paganini in the role occupied by Byron as the metaphorical child Harold of classical times: Perhaps no coincidence that Turner’s Chile Harolde’s Pilgrimage was exhibited to an incredible response at the Royal Academy in 1832 as Paganini was sitting for Patten’s portrait.
Bovy’s medal, that was already circulating in copies of various sorts as a souvenir of Paganini’s performances cast him in the traditional Greco-Roman tradition of the portrait bust, whilst two Apollonaic laurel wreaths in the claws of the Eagle on the reverse side further. The classical image is completed in Henry Westamcott’s 1831-32 marble bust – casting of Paganini in the Neo-Classical mould as can be imagined. After-all it was Choron & Fayolle’s history of music of 1811, translated and widely disseminated by John Sainsbury in England in 1814, that had set out the reasoning that led to the idea of “classical music” (a term they didn’t quite use) – or to the arrival at an equilibrium between music of the modern age and the standards set out by the ancient Greeks, and Paganini’s persona naturally fulfilled that persona.
Westmacott’s Grecian depiction of Paganini anticipates the Hector Berlioz’s own description of Paganini through the metaphor of Harold in Italy, and perhaps when compared to the charming and handsome portraits of Paganini by Ingres and Guyot, they give an iconography of Paganini well suited to Byron’s metaphor of Childe Harold, and indeed his own identity as the wandering poet. Yet it seems that at the very moment he was being heralded in the context of a bucolic idyll, a competing image was emerging of the possessed demonic violinist. The style seems more in place amongst the ranks of Jacob Epstein than obviously of the first half of the nineteenth century.
It would be easy to see these realisations as the consequence of the artist’s own time and place, but perhaps they equally provide an insight into the multifaceted character of the sitter himself as his early audiences perceived him and before historicism branded him in the mould of the devil’s violinist. Within this context, Pattens’ 1832 portrait is of considerable interest, retaining much of the charming facial expressions recalled from Ingres work, but the affectations of the long hair and facial hair give the sense of the theatrical persona that he wished to convey. Most of all it is a confident and self-assured portrait, unlike so many of the caricatures that emerged over the remainder of his life. The portrait itself remained with Patten until his death, thereafter it was purchased from his estate by W.E.Hill & Sons who kept it in their showroom up until 1995 when it was sold abroad. Paganini himself was greatly in admiration of the portrait, writing in November 1832 to request a replica (E. Neill, Paganini epistolario, Genoa 1982, page 159, no. 183, 10/11/1832). Understanding how much he loved the portrait, Achille Paganini indicated expressly in his will that the replica should be kept in a possible future museum. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s 1833 season, it was noted as the first time the musician had sat for a portrait. Given the obvious precedents, this may still be true – simply that it was the first time that he had sat for a formal portrait in oil rather than being the subject of sculptors or sketches. This preparatory study is the antecedent to that event.