Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour

1 portrait on display in Room 25 at the National Portrait Gallery

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, by John Singer Sargent, 1908 - NPG 6620 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour

by John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas, 1908
102 3/8 in. x 59 in. (2600 mm x 1500 mm)
Purchased through The Art Fund, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the Lord Marcus Sieff bequest, the Wolfson Foundation through the Art Fund, Lord Rothschild, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, the Headley Trust, the Linbury Trust, Sir Harry Djanogly, the Clore Duffield Foundation, the Ancaster Trust, the Sternberg Charitable Foundation and several other donations, 2002
Primary Collection
NPG 6620

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  • John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Portrait and landscape painter and muralist. Artist associated with 72 portraits, Sitter in 4 portraits.

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Sargent's portrait was commissioned by subscription from members of the Carlton Club and exhibited at the 1908 Royal Academy exhibition. Showing Balfour full length, within a classicised interior, Sargent employs the full apparatus of his later, grand manner, style of portraiture. The Spectator's critic noted: 'the mastery of the whole thing is astonishing, and we ask ourselves could anyone else now place the figure so surely and convincingly before us?' Balfour is shown as a commanding and highly intelligent presence, looking directly at the viewer, but the crossed legs and right arm draped languidly along the cornice also suggest the reserved aesthete. For G.K. Chesterton, reviewing the 1908 Academy, it was 'by far the most important thing in the Exhibition', one of Sargent's 'most sagacious' portraits and a summation not just of the man but of the age. 'It is the portrait of a philosopher and a statesman - a sad philosopher and a sad statesman', Chesterton wrote: 'in its presence we feel the sober truths about the English governing class, its wide and ruinous scepticism, its remaining pillars of responsibility and reason'.