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Robert Browning

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Robert Browning

by Michele Gordigiani
oil on canvas, 1858
28 1/2 in. x 23 1/8 in. (724 mm x 587 mm)
Given by Florence L. Barclay (Florence Louisa Barclay (née Charlesworth)), 1921
Primary Collection
NPG 1898

On display in Room 24 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Robert Browning (1812-1889), Poet; husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Sitter in 53 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Although he is not much read today, Browning is regarded as one of the greatest Victorian poets. This portrait of him was commissioned by an American admirer, Sophia Eckley, when Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning were living in Florence. Mrs Eckley was determined that it would be the best available likeness of him and wrote on the stretcher that Browning described it as an 'Incomparable Portrait by far the best ever taken'. It is certainly suggestive of his intense and cerebral character; but according to W.M. Rossetti, writing after Browning's death, 'The face in this portrait is certainly a highly intellectual one; but I think it is treated with too much morbidezza, so as to lack some of that extreme keenness, which characterized Browning.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 1899: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (companion portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

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

    Robert Browning (1812-89) is regarded as one of the greatest Victorian poets. This portrait of him was commissioned by an American admirer, Sophia Eckley, when Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were living in Florence. Eckley was determined that it would be the best available likeness of him and wrote on the stretcher that Browning described it as an ‘Incomparable Portrait by far the best ever taken’. It is certainly suggestive of his intense and cerebral character; but according to William Michael Rosetti, writing after Browning’s death: ‘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.’

  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 72
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 130
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 130 Read entry

    Although he is not much read today, Browning is regarded as one of the greatest Victorian poets. This portrait of him was commissioned by an American admirer, Sophia Eckley, when Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning were living in Florence. Mrs Eckley was determined that it would be the best available likeness of him and wrote on the stretcher that Browning described it as an 'Incomparable Portrait by far the best ever taken'. It is certainly suggestive of his intense and cerebral character; but accoding to W.M. Rossetti, writing after Browning's death, 'The face in this portrait is certianly a highly intellectual one; but I think it is treated with too much morbidezza, so as to lack some of that extreme keenness, which characterized Browning.'

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 83
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 144 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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