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Charles Dickens

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Charles Dickens

by Ary Scheffer
oil on canvas, 1855
37 1/8 in. x 24 3/4 in. (943 mm x 629 mm)
Purchased, 1870
Primary Collection
NPG 315


Dickens sat to the Dutch-born painter, Ary Sc…

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), Artist. Artist associated with 3 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Since it was first exhibited in 1856, Scheffer's portrait of Dickens has received a mixed response. At the time, all agreed that it was a fine picture but many, including Dickens himself, questioned its likeness. Over the following years, the portrait tended to be disregarded and, in the last few decades, has rarely been displayed. But recent conservation has confirmed its quality as a painting which deserves fresh appraisal. Dickens met Scheffer soon after he arrived in Paris in October 1855 on an extended visit. Scheffer - one of the leading artists working in France - introduced Dickens to many prominent Parisians and insisted on painting his portrait. Although Dickens greatly admired the artist, he found the repeated sittings tiresome, at a time when he was under intense pressure of work. As he wrote to John Forster, I can scarcely express how uneasy and unsettled it makes me to sit, sit, sit, with Little Dorrit on my mind. After further sittings he confessed that it does not look to me at all like, though he also allowed that it is always possible that I don't know my own face. It is certainly an idealised portrait, and for a number of Dickens' friends it failed to convince as an exact characterisation of him. But its importance was also acknowledged. As the Art Journal commented in 1856, it is something to be painted by so great a master and, to Dickens' pleasure, the picture was given pride of place at the Royal Academy exhibition. Whatever its flaws, it remains a portrait of the great novelist by an artist of international reputation and a fine record of their friendship.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 87
  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 138
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 178
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 20, 172 Read entry

    Gilt compo and gesso on an unidentified softwood, mitred, keyed, pinned and with corner blocks, adapted at the front by insertion of a removable glazed door, the back edge decoration in compo, the fine reeding of the main hollow combed in the gesso presumably in lengths before cutting and assembly, the back hollow and the top edge water gilt, the top edge on a red bole, and regilt in oil. 5 inches wide plus 1 1⁄ 8 inches later slip.

    Dickens sat to the Dutch-born painter, Ary Scheffer, in Paris in the winter of 1855-6. The frame of his portrait is an unusual one with fine horizontal banding on the curved sides, but from its similarity to frames on other Scheffers, and from the evidence of Dickens's correspondence, it has every appearance of having been chosen by Scheffer.1 Dickens wrote to his old friend, the artist Daniel Maclise, from Paris on 6 February 1856 to ascertain the Royal Academy's regulations as to the width of the frame allowed. The picture duly appeared at the Academy exhibition which opened on 5 May that year.

    Scheffer's interest in frames remains to be explored in detail but his liking for heavy, elaborate styles is evident from views of his studio and from the surviving frames.2 His portrait of Mrs Robert Hollond, one of his many British patrons, now in the collection of the National Gallery, has a broad frame ornamented with a series of neo-classical architectural motifs. In contrast the frame on Charles Dickens is rather simple and in its use of horizontal banding calls to mind Whistler's reeded frames of the 1870s.3

    1 Similar frames can be found in the collection of the Dordrechts Museum on three works by Scheffer: Sketch for 'The Bronze Age', 1852, Margaretha (part of a copy of Margaretha at the Spinning Wheel, 1831) and Euterpe. I am grateful to P. J. M. Deuss for supplying photographs of these frames. The three paintings came to the museum as a bequest from the artist's daughter, Cornelia, in 1899.

    2 Ary Scheffer 1795-1858, exhibition catalogue with introductory essay by L. J. I. Ewals, Institut Néerlandais, Paris, 1980, pp 4-5; see also pp 107, 111. See also Anne-Marie de Brem, L'atelier d' Ay Scheffer, exhibition catalogue, Musée de la vie romantique, 1991, p 9.

    3 A somewhat similar frame can be found on George Inness's Delaware Water Gap (National Gallery), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859.

  • Victoria and Albert Museum, Charles Dickens: an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of his death, 1970 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from June-September 1970), p. 109 number 08

Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1855back to top

Current affairs

Palmerston becomes Prime Minister, leading a coalition government after Lord Aberdeen loses a vote of confidence over his handling of the Crimean war. Known by the nickname 'Lord Pumicestone' for his abrasive style, Palmerston is the oldest prime minister in history to take up the post for the first time at the age of 71.
Stamp duty on newspapers is abolished, creating the mass media market in the UK as newspapers became more widely and cheaply available.

Art and science

Following a trip through the Holy Land to the Dead Sea, William Holman Hunt begins his symbolically-laden painting The Scapegoat.
John Millais marries Effie Gray, previously John Ruskin's wife, after their marriage was annulled that year.
The social theorist and sociologist Herbert Spencer and philosopher G. H. Lewes, publishes Principles of Pyschology, exploring a physiological basis to psychology.


The Fall of Sebastopol in the Crimean war, as Russia retreats, and the exhaustion of the Turkish alliance means the war nears its end. Despite being rebuffed by Florence Nightingale's team of nurses, Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole travels to the Crimea, opening a 'British Hotel' for sick and injured soldiers. She gains significant attention and praise for her nursing work.

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