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Man in a White Silk Waistcoat

Date: ca. 1745-1750
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 34.1
Label Text:The identity of the sitter is unknown.

The subject of this portrait will probably never be identified, but Highmore has so vividly captured his air of self-sufficiency that we scarcely need his name to feel we know the man. Turning his head slightly to one side, he does not meet our gaze directly but casts an oblique glance--simultaneously shrewd and supercilious--from the corner of his eye, with jaw set firmly and one eyebrow arched. Highmore reinforced these nuances of character by placing his subject in a cliché pose of the Baroque stage: the so-called "teapot" stance routinely adopted to denote a "Prince, a Generall of an armie" or some other character of high status and a "prowde minde." In this portrait, the bold, contrapposto stance gains additional swagger from the pronounced swing of the torso and hip toward the weight-bearing leg. The outward thrust of the body is echoed and reinforced by the sweeping curve of the dark coat silhouetted against the white silk waistcoat. The rotated head and raised arm add to the impression of dynamism, creating a lively body language somewhat at odds with the sitter's aloof facial expression.
The complexity of the pose suggests the influence of Anthony Van Dyck, whose portraits of Charles I and his aristocratic courtiers often feature the same sort of swaggering stance. Yet the man in the present work is clearly a less illustrious sort of person. He is dressed in the conventional mode of the middle-class professional: white waistcoat, black breeches, and dark blue, woolen coat. To this modest ensemble he has added only a few plain embellishments: a tiny gold cufflink visible on the cuff of the lowered arm; a stock and wrist ruffles without lace; and a heavily powdered, long bob wig. The darkening of the blue pigments over time has obscured the original forms of the coat that once lent volume to the chest. The resulting appearance of flatness, together with the coat's flaring silhouette, exaggerate the rotundity of the belly, whose ample girth adds to the man's appearance of puffed-up complacency.
Despite the demands of his thriving portrait practice, Highmore reportedly did not employ studio assistants or farm out sections of his paintings to outside workshops, as many of his colleagues did. The pucker and sheen of the silk waistcoat in the present portrait attest to the artist's meticulous attention to details of drapery, and the hands appear to have been painted from a live model in accordance with his usual procedure. Highmore enhanced their interest by setting up deliberate contrasts: one hand raised, the other lowered; one gesturing, one at rest; one partially obscured by a floppy cuff, the other with the cuff thrown back above the wrist. If anything, he has succeeded too well; the eloquence and delicacy of the beautiful fingers seem out of character with the complacent expression of the face and the corpulence of the body.
Highmore's adaptation of aristocratic portrait conventions to a middling sort of sitter suggests a democratizing impulse. David Solkin has called attention to this man's evident pride in his middle class status and to Highmore's fetishized treatment of the plain features of his dress as evidence of an attempt to reconfigure artistic conventions for dignity and stature on behalf of self-made patrons who had only recently "arrived." It is unknown when this portrait entered the collection of the Phelips family, but their precarious finances from the time the painting was executed until it was first documented at Montacute House argue against their having acquired it through direct commission or subsequent purchase. During the 1745-50 period, Elizabeth Phelips was aggressively solidifying the family's finances, and it is possible that the portrait represents a professional man who assisted her in some capacity. The formation of such an illustrious connection would have provided an appropriate occasion to commission Highmore's portrait and offer it as a gift. This scenario would go some way toward accounting for the air of proud pretension that Highmore has captured.

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