David Evans, Exhibitions Technician
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Finished or unfinished? It depends on how you look at it.
The subjects of this painting are Charles
Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Rockingham served two terms of office as Prime Minister of Great Britain. This portrait by Reynolds was painted in 1766 during Rockingham’s first term of office, whilst Burke was his private secretary. The composition is modelled on a Titian double portrait, by way of a Van Dyck which was in Rockingham’s collection. In 1766 Rockingham was about to lose office and Burke was a rising star.
There is another, more famous, portrait of Rockingham in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted two years after this one, is finished, and shows a nobleman in a standing portrait. In our picture, Rockingham appears sickly and as near a shade of blue as the sky, like he is fading into the background. Burke looks like a ghost of himself.
I think this painting has an approximate, compromised beauty. This is a painting caught in the act of composition. It is a performance in that we can see the painting ravelling or unravelling before our eyes. Aren’t paintings more interesting when we can see the artist’s hand? If we hold that this portrait is finished, then it has an aesthetic which accords more with works in the 20th Century than in the 18th Century. Think of it as a big modern abstract with comments to make on the transience of political influence and of fame. It tells us a tale about ourselves. We desire completion but we are characterised by finitude.