Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Reclining (and Slightly Silly) Hunter, 1783-84

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Isabella reporting,

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.


Anonymous said...

While your scenarios are apt, I'm not entirely convinced he's not simply drunk.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the patron failed to pay up and the artist's only remedy was to make a fool of him.

Chris Woodyard said...

What's in his hat? Even with a magnifier, I can't make out the items. And I wonder why there are parcels underneath the pile of dead birds. Satire, but who and why?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

NEEnergyobserve & Anonymous-I like these other scenarios!

Chris - I THINK they may be the twisted paper cartridges for the rifle, but I'm not at all sure. Anyone more knowledgable about 18th c guns out there?

As for the little parcels under the birds - I hadn't noticed them! I have no idea what they could be, either. The more you look at this painting, the odder it becomes...

Tom Miller said...

The items in his hat are freshly-plucked mushrooms. More kill!

Rosalie said...

That looks definitely like a smirk not a smile to me and a twinkle in his eye. You definitely don't see such a "modern" expression on other period paintings. I would say he is in on the satire of the piece. But what are those white things in his hat?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the mushrooms are why he has a goofy grin on his face? Also note that the rifle (or more likely a fowler) is left handed. Very uncommon at that time.

AuntieNan said...

Yeah, the dead owl, not a bird you'd normally find winging its way around in the daytime, is the kicker for me! And scuse me, but isn't he cradling that fowling piece a little too much like a mistress?? Maybe the guy was a terrible shot and a worse horseman, which is why the carnage and the Town clothes...

Priscilla said...

It appears that he has used his hat as an ashtray!

Melody said...

Based on a 20" research blitzkrieg
the parcels under the ickily oozing
pile are cartridge boxes. The hat
would appear to hold cartridges but -
if my understanding is correct - they would be unspent as the
entire cartridge is loaded, including
the paper which acts as wadding to
for the ball and powder. The
apple-shape object at the base of the
rifle stock I'm guessing is a gunpowder flask. Hope this is not

Sources (besides wiki):

Stephen Barker said...

A curious painting all round. Even the landscape looks unreal. I had a look at some of Earl's other paintings online which confirms he would have struggled in London to compete with his contemporaries. I came across more conventional paintings by him of shooters who were also finely dressed, in one case in a red suit with gold lace. Perhaps shooting was a more genteel pastime in the past?

Jay Templin said...

The items in his hat appear to be one pound sacks of birdshot, like the one by his knee, which actually *says* "Bird Shot" on it. The clay pipe has shot in it - a pipe like that holds @ 1.5 ounces of shot - a pretty typical hunting load. Cartridges are not really appropriate for a fowling piece, so those parcels shouldn't hold cartridges. They appear to be wrapped in newspaper and tied with twine.

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