Georgian gentlemen and ladies hunted with a passion. When one was not in Town, one was in the Country, and the primary activity there was hunting. There are numerous portraits of men (and women) astride their horses or posing with their dogs, guns, and huntsmen beside the day's prodigious kill, the feathered or furry bodies proudly presented as proof of genteel slaughter. (For a fine assortment of these, see this post by one of our favorite fellow-bloggers, Barbara Wells Sarudy.)
And then there's this fellow, above. Known now only as Reclining Hunter, he was painted in 1783-84 by the expatriate American painter Ralph Earl (1751-1801). While Earl had painted several traditional portraits of English hunting gentlemen in country settings, this isn't one of them. According to the museum's placard, this painting is an "enigmatic depiction of a reclining hunter suggest[ing] the emerging English view of the natural world as a place of repose and contemplation, where the beauties and pleasures of the countryside could be enjoyed."
I beg to differ. To me, it's more likely a parody of the hunting genre. To begin with, the gentlemen is wearing his most elegant London clothes instead of proper boots and buckskin breeches. His hair is neatly curled and powdered, and he has fine lace ruffles at his wrists. He's not standing ready and alert with his gun; he's lounging with it in the crook of his arm.
Like every hunting gentlemen, he is posed beside his kill, but his hapless victims are entirely inappropriate for a serious hunter. Include in the haphazard pile are a goose, an owl, and songbirds. In the background, his dubious marksmanship appears to have also claimed a cow and a donkey. Confirming all this foolishness is the hunter's supercilious (or merely silly) smile, showing he as no idea of just how wrong his situation is.
It also seems like exactly the sort of painting that Ralph Earl would paint. He seems to have had a certain contrary streak that helped keep him from achieving artistic success. Unlike more diplomatic American portraitists like John Singleton Copley, Earl was outspoken and politically unwise, a Tory who barely escaped to England after dabbling in espionage. In England, his self-taught skills improved, but he was no match for grand painters like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. He lied (when he returned to America, he advertised himself as having been part of the Royal Academy circle), drank heavily, and was often in debt. In frustration, he was forced to content himself painting portraits of lesser gentry. To me, the Reclining Huntsman might have been his reaction to having to paint one country squire too many – or perhaps it was painted for a now-forgotten patron who shared his views.
But that's only my humble opinion. Which do you see - a bucolic appreciation of the English countryside, or a satire of the English hunting gentleman (or perhaps something else entirely?)
Above: Reclining Hunter, by Ralph Earl, 1783-1784. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.