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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

by Michele Gordigiani
oil on canvas, 1858
29 in. x 23 in. (737 mm x 584 mm)
Given by Florence L. Barclay (Florence Louisa Barclay (née Charlesworth)), 1921
Primary Collection
NPG 1899

On display in Room 24 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Mrs Browning, like her husband, was a poet and her portrait was painted as a companion piece to that of her husband. According to a label on the back of the frame, it was done 'expressly for Sophia May Eckley and pronounced by Robert Browning to be the best Portrait ever taken of the Poetess' ; but at the time, Robert Browning was not convinced that it was a good likeness and wrote to Mrs Eckley that 'The portrait is not perfect certainly; the nose seems over long and there are some other errors in the face; also, the whole figure gives the idea of a larger woman than Ba'. It shows Elizabeth Barrett Browning looking dark-haired and intense and it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Mrs Eckley had introduced her at this time to spiritualism.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 1898: Robert Browning (companion portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

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  • 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. 140 Read entry

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic poem Aurora Leigh (1856) was published shortly before this portrait was painted and presents the quest of an independent woman poet to succeed intellectually and financially, without the support of family or friends. Browning's heroine was modelled in part upon Madame de Staël's Corinne.

  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 38 Read entry

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was a poet like her husband, and this portrait was painted as a companion piece to his. According to a label on the back of the frame, it was done ‘expressly for Sophia May Eckley and pronounced by Robert Browning to be the best portrait ever taken of the Poetess’. But at the time, Robert Browning was not convinced that it was a good likeness, writing to Eckley: ‘The portrait is not perfect certainly; the nose seems over long and there are some other errors in the face; also, the whole figure gives the idea of a larger woman than Ba.’ It shows Elizabeth Barrett Browning with dark hair and looking intense, and it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Eckley had introduced her to spiritualism around this time.

  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 67
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, 1993 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 August to 23 October 1994), p. 124
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 131
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 131 Read entry

    Mrs Browning, like her husband, was a poet, and her portrait was painted as a companion piece to that of her husband. According to a label on the back of the frame, it was done 'expressly for Sophia May Eckley, & pronounced by Robert Browning to be the best Portrait ever taken of the Poetess'; but at the time, Robert Browning was not convinced that it was a good likeness and wrote to Mrs Eckley that 'The portrait is not perfect certainly; the nose seems over long, and there are some other errors in the face; also, the whole figure gives the idea of a larger woman than Ba.' It shows Elizabeth Barrett Browning looking dark-haird and intense, and it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Mrs Eckley had instroduced her at this time to spritualism.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 83
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 145 Read entry

    Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were two of the foremost Victorian poets. After eloping together, they lived mainly in Italy. Robert is remembered for his dramatic psychological monologues, such as My Last Duchess (1842), and Elizabeth’s reputation now rests chiefly on Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850).

    The portrait painter Michele Gordigiani (1830–1909), whose studio was in Florence, was commissioned to paint these companion works [NPG 1898 and NPG 1899] by the American writer, Sophia May Eckley. Eckley’s inscriptions on the reverse of the works indicate her determination that the portraits would be the best available likenesses of the poets, noting that Robert described his own as an ‘Incomparable Portrait by far the best ever taken’, while that of Elizabeth was ‘pronounced by Robert Browning to be the best Portrait ever taken of the Poetess’. At the time, however, Robert had reservations about the portrait of his wife, writing to Eckley: ‘The portrait is not perfect certainly; the nose seems over long and there are some other errors in the face; also, the whole figure gives the idea of a larger woman.’ Similarly, William Michael Rossetti wrote of Robert’s portrait, ‘The face in this portrait is certainly a highly intellectual one; but I think it is treated with too much morbidezza [softness], so as to lack some of that extreme keenness, which characterised Browning.’ Nevertheless, these companion portraits certainly convey the intense and cerebral characters of the sitters.

Events of 1858back to top

Current affairs

After Palmerstone's government collapses, the Earl of Derby becomes Prime Minister for second time, again heading a minority government.
The Property qualification for MPs is abolished; one of the demands made by the Chartists, this allowed men who did not own property to stand as parliamentary candidates. Lionel Nathan Rothschild becomes the first Jew to sit in Britain's House of Commons, taking his oath on the Old Testament.

Art and science

The pianist Charles Hallé founds a symphony orchestra in Manchester, the Halle; now Britain's oldest professional orchestra. The Hallé symphony rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, under the tenure of conductor John Barbirolli, during which time they made many recordings, including Ralph Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 8.

International

The British Crown assumes control of India from the East India Company.
The Treaty of Tientsin, ending the Second Opium War, gives European powers new rights to intervene in Chinese affairs
The Fenian Brotherhood is founded by John O'Mahony, an Irish emigrant to the United States, to support Irish republican ambitions.

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