William Dobson's haunting self-portrait must be saved for the nation
Source:theguardian Author:​ Jonathan Jones Date: 2016-07-08 Size:
His big dark eyes dream beneath a mane of shaggy brown hair, his ruddy face ……

Painting in the big league … William Dobson. Portrait of the Artist.

His big dark eyes dream beneath a mane of shaggy brown hair, his ruddy face is moustachioed, and a white cravat is wrapped around his throat under a monastic-looking coat. The man in this painting is a romantic. He looks a bit like the 19th-century painter Gustave Courbet. Indeed, his intensity is not a million miles from Vincent van Gogh. Yet this face was painted more than 200 years before their time – by a British artist.

William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist, painted in about 1637, goes on sale today at Bonhams in London, and it deserves to be saved for the nation. The painting will almost certainly be bought by a private collector or dealer, but it needs to end up, somehow, in a major British public collection because it is a national treasure.

Dobson was born in London in 1611. It was already a city full of artists, but almost all of them came from continental Europe. Not that there was anything wrong with that – let’s not apply Brexit rhetoric to art history here. The reign of Charles I was a glorious chapter in British cultural history, when great European artists brought baroque genius to the courts in Greenwich and Whitehall, among them, famously, Rubens and Van Dyck.

Britain had to import all its serious artists because there was no domestic talent. We never produced a Michelangelo or a Caravaggio or even a minor Renaissance artist worth mentioning in a footnote. The rich visual culture of medieval Britain – still visible in cathedrals such as Salisbury and Gloucester – was wrecked by the Reformation. The national imagination, forbidden visual sensuality by Protestant zealots, went into words. Instead of a Da Vinci, we produced Shakespeare.

William Dobson broke through that Protestant glass ceiling. How he learned to paint is a mystery but, as is obvious from this self-portrait, he must have been looking at some of the brilliant European art that was then fashionable in court circles.

One artist who visited London in the 1630s was Jan Lievens, one of the most gifted painters of the Dutch golden age and a close friend of the young Rembrandt. Lievens shared Rembrandt’s passion for self-portraiture and the cocksure belief in the importance of art it implies. Dobson’s painting has a lot in common with Lievens and even with Rembrandt’s pupil Carel Fabritius. It is a bold and brave self-image of the artist as a poet, a rebel, a serious guy.

But the most important thing about this audacious painting is the fact it is a self-portrait. To paint your own image is to say that artists matter: that art is more than craft, that it’s an intellectual and imaginative enterprise. No British-born painter we know of had ever before asserted any such thing. The only antecedent for this picture is, tellingly, a portrait of a poet: in about 1595, an unknown British painter created a hauntingly romantic image of John Donne.

The confident, sensual impasto and subtle light of Dobson’s self-portrait, made when he was in his mid-20s, justify his creative confidence. This young man can paint in the big league, his self-depiction proves, rivalling the Dutch, French and Italian masters (and one mistress – Artemisia Gentileschi) who were so admired at Charles I’s court.

The Executioner with the Head of John the Baptist, circa 1640 to 1646, by William Dobson.

The message got through. Dobson became the first British art star, court painter to Charles I in the 1640s. Yet anyone familiar with British history will be hearing alarm bells. These were strange times. When Dobson painted his self-portrait, the relationship between Charles and parliament was well on the way to disintegrating.

Five years later, the English civil war broke out. When Dobson served the king, the land was ravaged by battles and the court decamped to Oxford, where the artist died in 1646. His Caravaggesque painting The Executioner with the Head of Saint John the Baptist – held at the Walker Art Museum in Liverpool – eerily mirrors the violence of the times and anticipates the fate of his patron Charles I, beheaded at Whitehall on 30 January 1649.

Beneath its self-assertion, Dobson’s self-portrait is introspective and troubled. There is a melancholy, an anxiety in his grave demeanour. This is a masterpiece from a time when the British people were so divided they went to war with one another.

An update

— BONHAMS (@bonhams1793)July 6, 2016

Strikingly powerful self-portrait by #WilliamDobson achieves £1,106,500 inc. premium at the #OldMasterPaintings Sale pic.twitter.com/lD1fwt7dQK

— William Dobson (@William_Dobson)July 6, 2016

Egads! Mine face doth sell for so many ducats!! @bonhams1793 @philipmould @JANUSZCZAK @arthistorynews pic.twitter.com/7qQwhKmFXT

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern