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Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, by Ary Scheffer, 1855 -NPG 315 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Charles Dickens

by Ary Scheffer
37 1/8 in. x 24 3/4 in. (943 mm x 629 mm)
NPG 315

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated very faintly (middle left): Ary Scheffer/1855

This portraitback to top

Dickens met Ary Scheffer soon after his arrival in Paris in October 1855 on an extended visit. Scheffer introduced him to several distinguished Frenchmen of the day, and insisted on painting his portrait. Sittings began in November, and on the 23rd of that month Dickens wrote to the artist postponing an appointment (Letters, Nonesuch edition, II, 710). Shortly afterwards he wrote to Forster in some desperation (Letters, II, 710):

'You may faintly imagine what I have suffered from sitting to Scheffer every day since I came back. He is a most noble fellow, and I have the greatest pleasure in his society, and have made all sorts of acquaintances at his house; but I can scarcely express how uneasy and unsettled it makes me to sit, sit, sit, with Little Dorritt on my mind, and the Christmas business too - though that is now happily dismissed. On Monday afternoon, and all day on Wednesday, I am going to sit again. And the crowning feature is, that I do not discern the slightest resemblance, either in his portrait or his brother's! They both peg away at me at the same time.'
On 10 January of the following year Dickens wrote to Miss Burdett-Coutts telling her that the portrait was finished, though complaining still of a lack of verisimilitude (Letters, II, 727). On 19 January, however, he wrote to Wilkie Collins (Letters, II, 733): 'I have been sitting to Scheffer to-day - conceive this, if you please, with No.5 [of Little Dorritt] upon my soul - four hours!!' He wrote to Forster the next day (Letters, II, 734):

'The nightmare portrait is nearly done; and Scheffer promises that an interminable sitting next Saturday, beginning at 10 o'clock in the morning, shall finish it. It is a fine spirited head, painted at his very best, and with a very easy and natural appearance in it. But it does not look to me at all like, nor does it strike me that if I saw it in a gallery I should suppose myself to be the original. It is always possible that I don't know my own face.'
This remained Dickens' opinion of the portrait, in spite of further sittings in March (Letters, II, 754), caused by Scheffer's own dissatisfaction with the likeness. Before its first exhibition, Dickens wrote to Maclise, on Scheffer's behalf, about the size of frames allowed by the Royal Academy (Letters, II, 740), and he was proud of its success there. He wrote to his wife from London (Letters, II, 769):

'When you see Scheffer, tell him from me that Eastlake, in his speech at the dinner, referred to the portrait as 'a contribution from a distinguished man of genius in France, worthy of himself and of his subject'.
Nevertheless the portrait remains one of the least satisfactory likenesses of Dickens. The novelist told Frith that when Scheffer first met him he exclaimed (Frith, I, 310; the same story is told in Letters, III, 241):

''You are not at all like what I had expected to see you; you are like a Dutch skipper'. As for the picture he did of me, I can only say that it is neither like me nor a Dutch skipper.'
A copy of the NPG portrait by Malcolm Stewart was exhibited Dickens Exhibition, Memorial Hall, London, March 1903 (350).
Henri Scheffer's portrait, painted at the same time as the NPG portrait, was, according to Forster, 'greatly inferior'. It was sold at Christie's, 11 July 1863 (lot 104), from the Arnold Scheffer collection, and was erroneously stated to have been exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was bought in, and resold at Christie's, 25 February 1865 (lot 110), bought by the dealer, Flatou.

Referenceback to top

Athenaeum (May 1856), p 654.

Dexter (ed.) 1938
The Letters of Charles Dickens, edited W. Dexter (Nonesuch Edition, 1938), II, 710, 727, 733, 740, 754, 768-9, III, 241.

Forster 1872-4
J. Forster, Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4), III, 103, 123, 125-7.

W. P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (1887), I, 310.

Kitton 1888
F. G. Kitton, 'Charles Dickens and his Less Familiar Portraits', Magazine of Art (1888), pp 321-2.

Kitton 1890-1
F. G. Kitton, Dickens by Pen and Pencil, and a Supplement to Dickens by Pen and Pencil (1890-1), catalogue at the end of vol I, IV-V.

The Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by his sister-in-law and eldest daughter (1880-2), I, 413-4, 420, 433-4, II, 149, III, 192.

The Times (5 May 186), p 5.

Physical descriptionback to top

Ruddy complexion, dark brown eyes, brown hair, beard and moustache. Dressed in a white shirt, black stock, very dark brown coat. Seated in a chair with his elbow resting on a red-covered arm. Background dark brown.

Provenanceback to top

The sitter; purchased from the Dickens Estate, through Messrs Colnaghi, 1870.

Exhibitionsback to top

RA, 1856 (62); Le Livre Anglais: Trésors des Collections Anglaises, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1951 (514); Charles Dickens and his London, Guildhall Art Gallery, London, May 1962 (36); Charles Dickens and his London, South London Art Gallery, December 1963; The Past We Share, Southern Methodist University, Texas, 1967 (23); Charles Dickens, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1970 (O8).

Reproductionsback to top

F. G. Kitton, 'Charles Dickens and his Less Familiar Portraits', Magazine of Art (1888), p 288; F. G. Kitton, Dickens by Pen and Pencil, and a Supplement to Dickens by Pen and Pencil (1890-1), I, facing 67 (engraved by R. B. Parkes).

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Ormond, Early Victorian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1973, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for Charles Dickens


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