Recent Acquisition | The Hidden Self-Portraits of Jonathan Richardson

This small self-portrait by the British artist Jonathan Richardson (16651745) shows the sitter in what seems a formal pose, but with a soft cap instead of a wig, indicating he is seen at home. Shown against a dark background and illuminated from the left, he casts a shadow on the brownish-greenish plaster wall. He looks to his proper right, perhaps in a mirror as in so many artists’ self-portraits, but no palette, paintbrushes, or other signs of his profession are visible.  

Richardson—who is not widely known today—was a key figure in the history of British art. A successful portrait painter and excellent draftsman, he was a connoisseur and assembled a distinguished drawing collection. He wrote the first English-language treatise on art, An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), and collaborated with his son on An Account of Some of the Statues, Bas-Reliefs, Drawings, and Pictures in Italy (1722); based on Jonathan Richardson Jr’s travels, this was an important guide for the British elite on the Grand Tour. His writings extended to literary criticism, with an essay on Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Richardson’s public life was complemented by a fascinating hidden side of his activities that became known only after his death—his practice of self-portraiture, inspired by Rembrandt and other painters who left records of their appearance and bearing. Beginning in 1728 and continuing until his death in 1745, he executed portraits—nearly always in graphite—as a daily exercise. The Museum’s painting of August 1733 comes near the beginning of the series and is rare in being executed in oil on canvas. Richardson’s self-portraits may have been made as exercises but they also record the subject’s changing physiognomy and expression, usually in informal poses, and his appearance must have been a subject for meditation. He claimed to connect self-portraiture with self-improvement, and in the morning he not only produced his series of self-portraits but also wrote poetry, another reflective means of self-expression. 


Jonathan Richardson (English, 1665–1745), Self-Portrait, 1733. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Surdna Fund (2017-155)