It is the Winter Olympics in Sochi so a good moment to highlight two skating portraits.
The first and above is Henry Raeburn‘s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, better known by its shorter title The Skating Minister. This is one of Scotland’s best known paintings and considered an icon of Scottish Art. When you buy your Skating Minister coffee mug, fridge magnet, tea towel and mouse pad, the good staff of the National Gallery of Scotland gift shop will place your purchases in a Skating Minister adorned carrier bag.
The good reverend incidentally was a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, the first figure skating club formed anywhere in the world. I find it amazing that such a club need be formed. That said the British are found of clubs and being Scotland doubtless this club would have been men only.
I digress. It has to be pointed there is an attribution controversy attached to this painting. In 2005, a curator from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery suggested that the painting was by a French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux. Highly controversial and the label next to the painting reads “Recent research has suggested that the picture was actually painted….by Henri-Pierre Danloux.” There has been passionate debate in the Edinburgh salons. I am Raeburn’s greatest fan. I want it to be indisputably attributed to him but to my eyes the Skating Minister does not appear to be part of his normal oeuvre.
A few years ago I visited the wonderful National Gallery of Washington and came across this portrait by one of America’s foremost portraitists. The Skater by Gilbert Stuart which was painted in London in 1782. I was really quite excited at the time because I immediately saw the similarity with Raeburn’s Skating Minister which I had grown up with. It is thought that this painting may have influenced Raeburn’s later painting. Incidentally there are a few good Raeburns in the gallery too.
This portrait was immediately recognised for its originality and effectively launched Gilbert Stuart’s career and put putting him on a parity with Gainsborough and Reynolds his contemporaries.
I personally think this is Gilbert Stuart’s finest portrait but you are far more likely to be familiar with another.
Stuart painted George Washington in a series of iconic portraits. The most famous being The Athenaeum which is currently portrayed on US one dollar bills. Stuart never completed the original version. After finishing Washington’s face, the artist kept the original version (below) to make the copies.
If Scotland, god forbid, were to become independent and we must have our own currency, perhaps we do worse than adorn our notes with our very own Skating Minister. However the inescapable conjecture must be that he would be on very thin ice indeed.
I recently watched the HBO miniseries “Adams” which is really excellent. In it there was a scene depicting the delivery of two portraits by Gilbert Stuart of John and Abigail Adams to their farmhouse home in Massachusetts. John Adams much admired these paintings but it was a bittersweet moment because they were fully aware that the portraits had rejected for hanging in the White House. Adams was the first resident of the White House but at the time of handover he had badly fallen out with Thomas Jefferson his rival and successor. Later, after Jefferson’s own presidential terms ended, they became the closest of friends again maintaining a steady correspondence until the day of their deaths. Famously they both died on the same day, 4th July 1826, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence of which they were signatories. Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of John and Abigail Adams are to be found today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.