This week a major work cared for by the University Museums will be packed up and shipped off to the Yale Centre for British Art to be displayed in their upcoming exhibition Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World. The exhibition will explore the impact of three German princesses who married into British royalty and shaped the culture and era in which they lived through their support of philosophers and artists of all varieties.
The impressive portrait Triumph of Truth by Joshua Reynolds will be joining works from Historic Royal Palaces and the Yale Centre for British Art.
The portrait depicts James Beattie, a prominent philosopher, scholar and poet in the eighteenth century and Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College. Beattie can be seen holding on of his most notable works; Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770), in which he argued against the institution of slavery. The painter, Joshua Reynolds, was known for his use of the ‘grand style’ of painting which incorporated visual metaphors in order to suggest noble qualities; a technique that is clearly used in Triumph of Truth.
Not only do the University of Aberdeen Museums hold the portrait of James Beattie, but the Special Collections Centre at the University also hold entries from Beattie’s diary during his trip to Edinburgh while the portrait was being painted, which give us further insight into the creation of the piece.
Beattie’s writing recount his experience of having his portrait painted by Reynolds, describing him as:
A man not only of excellent taste in painting and poetry, but of an enlarged understanding and truly philosophical mind…it is the truth and simplicity of nature which he is ambitious to imitate’. Beattie later describes Reynolds as ‘the greatest designer of this, or perhaps of any age.
Clearly Beattie was more than happy to have his portrait painted by this talented artist. Throughout his dairy he repeatedly mentions Reynolds and the process of the work being created. He remarks:
I sate to him five hours, in which time he finished my head, and sketched out the rest of my figure: – the likeness is most striking and the execution masterly…though I sate five hours, I was not in the least fatigued; for, by placing a large looking glass opposite to my face, Sir Joshua put it in my power to see every stroke of his pencil; and I was greatly entertained to see the progress of the work; and the easy and masterly manner of the artist, which differs as much from that of all other painters I have seen at work, as the expectation of Giardini differs from that of a common fiddler.
At the University Museums we are lucky to have so many other resources and expertise across the University that allows us to learn so much more about objects in our collections, such as this major work. Thanks to the Special Collections Centre we have the sitter’s account of having his portrait painted alongside the finished product.
The exhibition will be open Thursday, 2 February until 30 April 2017.