The Wallace Collection

Jean-Baptiste Isabey, The Duke of Wellington (M223)
Treasure of the Month - June 2004

Jean-Baptiste Isabey, The Duke of Wellington (M223)

Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855) was the leading painter of miniature portraits in early nineteenth-century France.

Before the Revolution he had attracted the patronage of Queen Marie-Antoinette, and even after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy his career continued to flourish, reaching its height under the Emperor Napoleon, for whom he and his studio painted hundreds of portraits, both of the Emperor himself and his numerous family. (There are many fine examples displayed in this gallery). Enjoying high favour with Napoleon and his two successive wives, Joséphine and Marie-Louise, Isabey even organised all the festivities at court and designed the costumes worn at the Emperor's spectacular coronation in 1804.

Isabey seems to have had little difficulty in adapting to changes of political regime. After Napoleon's abdication in 1814 he painted the Emperor's former enemies, including Prince August of Prussia (miniature also displayed in this case) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). The following year the Duke was to be the victor at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's final defeat after his return to France from exile on the island of Elba. The first meeting between Isabey and Wellington took place in Paris, but there were further sittings in Vienna when Wellington was one of the representatives at the congress which determined the future political composition of Europe. According to Isabey himself, when Wellington first came to his studio in Paris, he 'treated me in a manner so unceremonious and British that I was obliged to refuse flatly the honour of painting his august features. When he realised that I had found him rude, he came again accompanied by the Duchess de Santa Cruz, and I consented to paint his portrait after all.'

The Duke, who during his long life was to sit for countless portraits, was often a generous patron but was also notorious for his often brusque way with artists. By adopting a low viewpoint Isabey has effectively conveyed the hauteur of his sitter. The Wallace Collection's version of the original (now lost) miniature is dated 1818 and shows Wellington wearing some of his many decorations: the ribbon and jewel of the Golden Fleece, the Peninsular Gold Cross and the star and badge of the Order of the Tower and Sword of Portugal. The splendid frame is decorated round the edge with the chain of the Order of the Garter and is surmounted by a trophy comprising a sword, a baton, two flags and a ducal coronet on a cushion; at the bottom is the letter W on a banner.

The miniature was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, father of Sir Richard Wallace, at auction in Paris in 1852. Lord Hertford collected objects with Napoleonic associations, as many of the paintings and miniatures in this gallery demonstrate, but he was also deeply interested in the Duke of Wellington. His friend Colonel Gurwood was the Duke's secretary. Both men are shown in a painting by Andrew Morton on display in the Front Hall of the Wallace Collection.