The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)
- Extended Catalogue Entry
© National Portrait Gallery, London
The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)
by Patrick Branwell Brontë
oil on canvas, circa 1834
35 1/2 in. x 29 3/8 in. (902 mm x 746 mm)
Sittersback to top
Artistback to top
- Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848), Painter and poet; brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. Artist or producer associated with 3 portraits.
This portraitback to top
This is the only surviving group portrait of the three famous novelist sisters - from left to right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë. The portrait was known from a description of it by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell who saw it in 1853. It was thought to have been lost until it was discovered folded up on top of a cupboard by the second wife of Charlotte Brontë's husband, the Reverend A.B. Nicholls, in 1914. In the centre of the group a male figure, previously concealed by a painted pillar, can now be discerned; it is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist, their brother Branwell Brontë.
The front page of the popular Daily Graphic magazine of March 6 1914 bore the headline “The Romantic Discovery of Long Lost Brontë Portraits”. The accompanying illustration depicted visitors inspecting two damaged portraits of the Brontë sisters, hung for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait was known from a description of it by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell who saw it in 1853. The rediscovery of the portraits, thought to be long lost, made for a compelling story and generated much public interest. They had been found by Mrs M. A. Nicholls, the second wife of Charlotte Brontë’s widower, on top of a wardrobe at Hill House, Banagher in Ireland. Both portraits were painted by Branwell Brontë, brother to Charlotte, Emily and Anne. In the centre of the group a male figure, previously concealed by a painted pillar, can now be discerned; it is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist, their brother Branwell Brontë, later painted out. This work, having been folded up for many years, was marked by a number of crease lines. The single portrait of Emily is the only surviving fragment of a larger group portrait that included the other sisters and Branwell, who was depicted holding a gun. As Mrs Nicholls, the discoverer of the paintings, explained in a letter to the Gallery, her husband had ‘cut it out of a painting done by Branwell as he thought it good but the others were bad’.
It was unusual for the Gallery to acquire portraits in such a damaged state, and there was much debate about their quality. Elizabeth Gaskell described the group portrait as ‘not much better than sign painting as to the manipulation but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable’. Writing for The Sphere, Clement Shorter expected that by the time of their display restoration would have fully remedied the “ill-treatment derived from over forty years of neglect”. The Gallery concluded, however, that the damaged condition of the portraits was expressive in itself and merited preservation. At the first day of viewing visitors were so numerous that, in the words of the Yorkshire Observer, the Gallery “underwent a minor siege” and today both paintings are still some of the most popular works in the Gallery’s collections.
Related worksback to top
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 68
- Audio Guide
- Smartify image discovery app
- 100 Writers, p. 57
- Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 10
- Alexander, Christine (Christine Anne), Celebrating Charlotte Brontë : transforming life into literature in Jane Eyre, 2016, p. 160
- Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 41 Read entry
Found folded up on top of a cupboard in 1914, this is the only surviving group portrait of the three writers and the only known image of Anne, the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
- Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 77
- Eger, Elizabeth; Peltz, Lucy, Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings, 2008 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 13 March to 15 June 2008), p. 137
- Forster, Margaret, BP Portrait Award 2006, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 15 June to 17 September 2006), p. 11
- Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 10
- Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 37 Read entry
This is the only surviving group portrait of the three famous novelist sisters, and was thought to have been lost until it was discovered, folded up on top of a cupboard, by the second wife of Charlotte Brontë’s husband, the Reverend A. B. Nicholls, in 1914. In the centre of the group a male figure, previously concealed by a painted pillar, can now be discerned; it is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist, their brother, Branwell Brontë.
- John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 77
- Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 57
- Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 206
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 119
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 119 Read entry
In 1946 Frances Bell, a niece of the Rev. Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte Brontë's husband, recorded the circumstances in which the portrait of the Brontë sisters had been found: 'When Aunty Mary [second wife of Arthur Nicholls] found the portraits now in the National [Portrait] Gallery she asked me to go to the Hill House to look at them. They had been found on the top of the cupboard in what had been uncle Arthur's dressing room. She remembered them & that he had disliked them as they were so very unflattering to "the girls", as he called them.' As it has turned out, this is among the most popular and historically valuble paintings in the Gallery's collection, since, in its crude way, it conveys an authentic sense of the presence of the three sisters and of their personalities. The sisters are from left to right Anne (1820-49), Emily (1818-48) and Charlotte (1816-55). In the background, there was a fourth figure who is always assumed to have been Branwell Brontë himself.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 713
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 136 Read entry
The novels and poetry of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë defied nineteenth-century literary taste. The passionate, destructive Romanticism of Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) confounded and disgusted critics while the Spectator accused Anne of a ‘morbid love for the coarse’ in its review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Charlotte was more successful, forging her enduring literary reputation with Jane Eyre (1847) and Villette (1853).
This is the only surviving group portrait to depict the sisters (left to right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte) and it was discovered folded up on top of a cupboard by Charlotte’s husband, the Reverend A. B. Nicholls, in 1914. It is just possible to discern a male figure in the middle of the group, which is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist, their dissolute brother Branwell (1817–48). His figure has been painted over with a pillar in the final composition.
Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top
- Celebrating Charlotte Brontë (22 February 2016 - 14 August 2016)
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1834back to top
Current affairsSir Robert Peel, Tory, replaces Whig Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister, promising measured reform in a shift from reactionary 'Tory' to more measured 'Conservative' politics (he had voted for the 1832 Reform Act).
Trial of Tolpuddle Martyrs, six labourers transported to Australia after trying to raise funds for workers in need by forming a Friendly Society.
Art and scienceCharles Babbage's invents the Analytic Machine. Considered to be the forerunner to the modern computer, the machine was able to make automatic mathematical calculations.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton publishes his hugely popular, but now largely neglected, novel Last Days of Pompeii, set in the Italian city at the time of Mount Vesuvius' eruption in 79AD.
InternationalDom Miguel I, King of Portugal, is defeated by his brother Pedro IV, in the Portuguese civil war.
Slavery is abolished in the British dominions, although slaves still working are indentured to their former owners in an 'apprenticeship' system; the philanthropist Joseph Sturge was a prominent critic of the policy, which was abolished in 1838. Whilst slave owners received compensation, slaves received nothing.
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