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P.G. Batoni - Sir Charles Watson

Sir Charles Watson
Sir Charles Watson

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni

(Lucca, 1708 - Rome, 1787)


Sir Charles Watson, 1775
oil on canvas, 99.7 x 75.8 cm
signed and dated on the lower left “P. BATONI ROMAE./ PINXIT AN. 1775”
Lucca, Art Collection of the Fondazione Cassa dei Risparmi di Lucca


Charles Watson, the son of Charles (1714-1757), vice admiral of the English navy and already commander in chief of the fleet of the West Indies, was titled as baron at the age of nine, in 1760, by way of reward for the contribution of his father in the maintenance of British naval supremacy. Graduate of Christ Church in Oxford in 1769, he is plausibly identified with the “Watson” or “Weston” recorded in Florence and Venice in June 1775 (E. Peters Bowron 2008, p. 308), the same year in which Pompeo Batoni executed his portrait.  
During the Seventies, the painter had reached his definitive recognition as portraitist of the privileged young English, Scottish and Irish aristocrats who came to Rome during that journey of personal development known as the Grand Tour, which brought them to Italy to enjoy the mild climate, the splendour of the landscape, but especially to admire the masterpieces of ancient art.
Unlike many of his countrymen, who loved to portray themselves beside the most famous antiquity in a cultured game of citations, the young Charles Watson chose to have himself depicted in a so-called the Van Dyck dress, bound in a dark brown doublet, golden mantle and buttons, while grasping in his hand a hat with its ribbon also golden and adorned with ostrich feathers. It was a costume that it resembled the decade of the 1630s, era in which Antoon Van Dyck was active at the court of Charles I, which had brought to him enormous success in England in the middle of the next century, as Horace Walpole mentions in his chronicle of a masquerade ball that took place in 1742 in Vauxhall Gardens in London (H. Walpole, The Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, edited by W. S. Lewis, New Haven 1937-1983, XVI, p. 339).   
Convention that was fashionable among the British artists, the Van Dyke dress reached the studio of Batoni perhaps at the instigation of travellers, or more probably by means of Thomas Jenkins, student of the portraitist Thomas Hudson. It was a fashion destined to extend through the space of the eighth decade of the century, within which are also placed the portraits of Sir Wyndham Knachbull Wyndham, Sixth Baron (1758-1759, Los Angeles, County Museum of Art) and Thomas William Coke, then First Earl of Leicester (1773-1774, Norfolk, The Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate).
In the Portrait of Sir Charles Watson the painter displays an almost philological accuracy in the definition of every aspect of the costume, which stands out against a neutral background, exhibiting an exceptional technique in the particularly accurate rendering, almost tactile, of the shiny silks and lacework collar. In the conscious search of pictorial effects, Batoni unites his particular skill in portraying the lineaments of the young man, captured in the moment he turns his head to one side in a pose of extreme naturalness that gives the figure a keen sense of movement.
Elena Lissoni



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