Slow Art Sunday: The artist or the assistant?

Slow Art reflection by Deby McKnight

Ulster Museum’s Visitor Guide and Slow Art tour guide, Deby McKnight reflects on work by Italian portraitist, Pompeo Girolamo Batoni in honour of International Slow Art Day.

Image: James Stewart of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1741–1821), Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787)
James Stewart of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1741–1821), Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787)

Here are some of the things I wish we had talked more about during a Slow Art session on Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708-1787) where we looked at one of his Grand Manner portraits from our permanent collection: James Stewart of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1741 – 1821).

To begin, a little bit of background about the subject of this portrait. James Stewart was the eldest son of William Stewart of Killymoon, Co. Tyrone and Eleanor King of Rockingham, Co. Roscommon. Stewart served in the army in his youth and succeeded his father to the county seat in 1768, which he held until 1812.

Shortly before embarking on his long parliamentary career, Stewart did the Grand Tour in Europe, which in the 18th century, generally consisted of Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Naples, for those who had the means. Poet and satirist, Alexander Pope described Grand tourists: ‘Led by hand he saunter’d Europe round, And gather’d every vice on Christian ground.

At the time, anyone who was anyone who visited Rome simply had to have his or her portrait painted by Italian artist Pompeo Batoni. He was the leading portrait painter of 18th century Rome, especially of British noblemen on the Grand Tour, and his Grand Manner portraits could found in big houses all across Britain and Ireland. Batoni is known to have painted 225 known individual sitters in this style, 175 of which were from the British Isles, many extremely similar.

He developed basic portrait patterns which he altered slightly but used repeatedly during the 1760s and 1770s when his number of clients grew dramatically. Each portrait features Batoni's studio props in the background, often the same greyhound or spaniel will appear at a sitter’s knee, each are in fine, fashionable costume, and the poses very similar, like these portraits of Thomas Peter Giffard (1735 – 1776) and William Weddell (1708 – 1787).

Batoni usually painted the bulk of his commissioned portraits himself, but if a sitter requested more than one copy, it was more likely to be a studio assistant than Batoni himself carrying out all but the final touches. For me, this raises considerations about the interplay between originality and the purpose of the portrait:

If the quality of painting and likeness is excellent, and the sitter portrayed as well-travelled and cultured, is originality still important? What difference would it make now if we commissioned a portrait, only to find that a dozen of our acquaintances had themselves painted in almost the same pose with the same props?

Some artists today have huge teams, from Bridget Reilly, Dale Chihuly, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, who had 140 assistants on his Chelsea studio. Even artists like Michelangelo and Reubens started out as studio assistants and worked their way up to master their own studios. Therefore, does it matter if an artist doesn't actually put their ‘hand’ to the artwork if they generate the concept and give instruction to assistants on how to create the finished piece?

See Batoni’s portrait of James Stewart of Killymoon, County Tyrone (1741–1821) in our Order and Revolution collections highlight tour.