GEORGE DAWE ABROAD: "A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo", and a delicate "Juliet”

Galina Andreeva

Magazine issue: 
#2 2004 (03)


WILHELM AUGUST GOLICKE. The artist’s studio. 1832
WILHELM AUGUST GOLICKE. The artist’s studio. 1832
Detail with “Self-portrait” by Dawe

Before George Dawe left Britain his talent had won recognition with his compatriots too, among them the famous English romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dawe's theoretical essay on colour was highly appreciated by no lesser figures than Goethe. After the painter's death his character allegedly provided Nikolai Gogol with the prototype for one of his literary characters, with the derogatory name of "Mr. Nil", a successful portrait painter who came to Russia from Europe and won easy popularity with Russia's "Beautiful People". Unfortunately, beyond that, Dawe's name has been almost forgotten... Studying George Dawe's life and work, the question arises: whose judgment - Pushkin's or Gogol's - was more accurate in its assessment of the figure, or rather of the esoteric metamorphosis that happened to an extraordinary character who appeared to have wasted his talents in numerous copies and prints?

George Dawe (1781-1829) was born into and belonged to the artistic circles of London. His father, Philip Dawe, was a well-known engraver and caricaturist. George Morland, one of the patriarchs of the English school of genre painting, was his Godfather. Dawe, Jnr. was named after him. In tribute to the great man George Dawe wrote "The Life of George Morland, with Remarks on his Works"[2], published in 1807. It is a work which includes some "poetic" exaggeration, closer to fiction, but also contains a few very perceptive observations on Morland's work, which only a professional painter could make. A perpetual lack of money and a Bohemian way of life, which were both the cause of Morland's early death, were likely seen by George Dawe as a warning. So, in his life, the painter would seek - first, instinctively, and, later, quite consciously, prudently and consistently - recognition and financial comfort. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that George Dawe lacked a romantic drive. A number of his canvases from the 1810s, painted when Dawe was already in his thirties, look, in particular, exceptionally emphatic. They are "A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo" (1810), "Philip Howorth as the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpent" (1811), "Mother Rescuing her Child from an Eagle's Nest" (1813)[3]. Some others - "Genevieve" (1812) and "O'Neill as Juliet" (1815) - are notably lyrical.[4]

Only the latest discoveries, including those made in some collections of New Zealand and the USA and sponsored by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London and their colleagues in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, enabled the author of this article to spot the above-mentioned pictures by George Dawe as well as to find some rare prints made after them.

The subject of the "Negro" is traditionally thought to be based on the fact that happened to the black sailor Wilson from Boston: contemporaries were amazed at Wilson’s body and force. As Benjamin Robert Haydon, an artist, remembered, Wilson looked powerful with gorgeous athletic proportions; the muscles were clear-cut, the body was "...a perfect model of beauty and activity - small body and large limbs, with small joints - his contour was undulating and nature suffered nothing to interrupt this beauty in any position "[5] Haydon, delighted in all possible positive features of "brutality' he discovered in the extraordinary model, made more than thirty sketches and even ordered some casts to be taken of the expressive torso of Wilson’s in different poses. The performance of some of them would cost the model his life.

Strange as it may seem, one of the casts, together with those of some antique statues and the famous Parthenon marbles brought to Britain by Lord Elgin, was sent to the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1818.[6]

Thomas Lawrence also noted some unique qualities of Wilson's body: in certain poses it recalled the beautiful body of Antinous, while in others it resembled the masculinity of Heracles. Finding in Wilson both individuality and perfection, characteristic of antique statues, Lawrence made a sketch of him on canvas. In his turn, Dawe engaged the remarkable model to pose for his energizing and vitalizing character, which, he thought, should bring him the laurels of an Academician. The canvas won the prestigious British Institute award and a handsome financial prize, but it failed to bring the author his desired Academy membership. In that period of harsh competition for the honour of being named an Academician, the "Negro" undoubtedly won Dawe more admirers, but his adversaries claimed the picture was an ambitious pretension with too little expressiveness and too many faults.[7] The relatively slight popularity of the subject prevented the painting from appealing to British "snobs" either. Only more than a century later, in 1996, a review of the exhibition "Picturing Blackness. 1700-1990s" at the Tate Gallery in London brought the "Negro" and the name of its author back to public attention. The reviewer, Richard Dorment, wrote: "...It is as though he [Dawe] felt compelled to show Wilson not as a freeborn Westerner but as a naked savage, superior to the animal only by virtue of his strength"[8]

An absolutely different character stands out in "O'Neill as Juliet". The famous Irish actress Eliza O'Neill, who was lovingly nicknamed "Dove", took London's theatre audience by storm when she appeared as Juliet in her debut performance of Shakespeare's tragedy in October 1814. The performance was sensational: most of London's theatre-goers found Miss O'Neill to be looking "younger and better than Miss Siddons". Dawe must have started his portrait of the rising star in the aftermath of that stunning success. In the summer of 1815 the portrait was almost ready, with only the background left to be painted. To accomplish that John Constable, the future master of the landscape, was invited; the background, according to his own letters and the memoirs of his contemporaries, was made up of exotic flowers and artistic accessories. Constable was evidently carried away by the work: he was said to look forward to crossing the threshold of Dawe's house as soon as the clock struck six in the morning.[9]

The completed composition looked rather static, which actually conveys the manner of stage performances at the turn of the 19th century, so one could, undoubtedly, imagine how it really looked. On stage, in certain scenes, the performer was meant to assume an eloquent theatrical attitude while reading an important monologue, or waiting for the audience to burst into a storm of applause. It was one such scene from "Romeo and Juliet" that George Dawe depicted in the portrait of O'Neill. The same scene, but with another actress as Juliet, can be seen in a picture by John Opie, which was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1803. Besides, two years before Dawe's portrait, Thomas Phillips had painted the same scene with Miss Stanley as Juliet.[10]

The choice of the scene cannot only be explained by its traditional popularity with audiences. The pose also enabled George Dawe to show "the Greek features" of the actress’s face and the "classical proportions" of her body. The portrait was hugely favoured by the public, who were familiar with it mainly from the prints made by G. Maile in the spring of 1816. As for the original portrait, it seems to have been brought to Russia and exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1820. Alexander Bestuzhev, the future Decembrist, pretending to be a fastidious critic of art, noted: "Something airy can be seen in the actress O’Neill... The spirit of Shakespeare (whose drama Mr. Dawe depicted her in) seems to have breathed some specific life into all his pictures… "The public was unanimous in declaring "O’Neill" to be the best of the numerous Dawe paintings displayed at the exhibition.[11] The success of the picture encouraged the painter to copy its composition in his portrait of the famous Petersburg aristocratic beauty Agrafena Zakrevsky (1823). It was that very image that Alexander Pushkin immortalized in his superb poem "The Portrait" (1828).[12]

The English artist was very proud of his "O'Neill". The full-length portrait was placed in the middle of his splendid studio in St. Petersburg, which can be seen in the engraving "Emperor Alexander I Visits the Studio of Painter Dawe in the Hermitage" (1826) by J. Bennet and Thomas Wright.

A sketch of a much smaller size, found in the Folger Library in Washington, discloses Dawe's artistic design. He meant to strike the viewer with romantic effects - a complex combination of two luminous points, and that of lights and darks. In the right corner there was an exotic blue passion flower to be found in Robert Thornton's "The Temple of Flora" (1800). The author of the book points out that the flower opens out and blooms for only three days before it dies. George Dawe chooses the motive as a symbol of beautiful but fleeting passion.

What made the painter change so fundamentally the tonality and style of his pictures in the 1810s? Was it a kind of creative uncertainty? Or a search for his own style, manner and subject? Or a desire to make his pictures appeal to the public? Thus, the idea of extraordinary force, struggle and overcoming the opponent is conveyed both in his "Negro" and in "Philip Howorth as the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpent". Both compositions look like psychological anatomical studies. Dawe is known to have been a careful student of anatomy, and also showed a certain interest in psychiatry: the collection of the Royal Academy includes his canvas "Demoniac" (1811). The picture was passed to the Academy as a gift from George Dawe in his capacity as a newly elected Academician in 1814.[13]

The canvases which were recently discovered constitute an important fact of Dawe's life, and were painted at the peak of the artist's professional career and recognition at home. While working on the portrait of O'Neill in the part that had made her famous, George Dawe might have been hoping that his own star was in the ascendant, dreaming of possible future recognition and fame...

To give him his due, it must be said that the painter proved his gift for eye-catching, dramatic compositions; unfortunately, however, neither historical, nor genre painting brought him much money. Yet there was another bright example of a successful artist at the beginning of the 1810s: Thomas Lawrence, choosing to paint portraits, was deluged with orders. Highly acclaimed, the prosperous Lawrence could afford to raise prices for his pictures. Dawe had to struggle against, and finally overcame, his personal desire to paint big historical pictures. He turned to the lyrical genre of the theatrical and literary portrait, but found little demand: he fell short on his expectations of making good money by selling the prints of his "O'Neill". But soon Dawe found himself the court painter to the Duke of Kent and accompanied his patron on his trip to the Continent, and be present at the meeting of the heads of the Union states. Lawrence seemed to see him as a serious rival. Thus, meeting Dawe in Aachen in Germany Lawrence wrote in a letter to Joseph Farington: "At five minutes before four I went into the Court [of Alexander I], having seen Mr. Dawe prowling close to it; (I beg his pardon) creeping round in the street". [14]

George Dawe was introduced to Emperor Alexander I, who invited him to work in Russia on incredibly good terms (which, incidentally, evoked a storm of criticism in the Russian patriotic press). On arriving in St Petersburg, Dawe was offered a prestigious studio in the Shepelevsky House, adjacent to the Emperor's Palace. In the following few years Dawe managed to set up what his contemporaries were to call a "portrait factory" - actually, a family business with the participation of Dawe's two brothers, Henry and James Philip, his sister Mary and her husband Thomas Wright, as well as a workshop of Russian apprentices - painters, lithographers, engravers - to copy in oil and print the military and social portraits of the English master. It is worth noting that Dawe was the first artist who dared to ask the Emperor to grant painters in Russia the reserved copyright that was the right to control and authorize copying their original works. A detailed letter addressed to Alexander I explaining a similar legal practice existing in Britain, as applied in book publishing, is a most interesting document of Russian history and a noteworthy fact of George Dawe's biography.

The associations behind "Negro Overpowering a Buffalo" could be attributed to Dawe himself as a painter. Having become the Russian Emperor's court portrait painter, the head of a large and prosperous workshop, George Dawe had to toil equally like a Negro to worship the golden calf. He worked for fourteen hours a day without going out, and kept only necessary or obligatory acquaintances. His dream of gaining recognition and prosperity did come true. But at what price? Rejecting the romantic ideals of his youth, and growing more and more pragmatic both in his life and creative work, resulted in an inevitable development: in most cases his numerous paintings, produced on the line of the "portrait factory" were lacking in merit. One of St. Petersburg's reviewers disdainfully called him a "hack". Various contemporaries were glad to criticize Dawe, charging him with meanness, a lack of scrupulousness, and the exploitation of his Russian apprentices.

In hindsight, George Dawe's work and personality should not be judged by such criteria. It is true that the majority of his historical and genre paintings, with a few exceptions, do not deserve acclaim for their artistic merits: instead, they are ordinary paintings typical of the time in which they were created. While a number of his prints and portraits in the collections of the V&A or the National Portrait Gallery in London, or that of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg are worthy of high acclaim, there is no denying the fact that Dawe's workshop produced a great number of tasteless, dull copies and replicas. To what extent any one picture can be attributed to George Dawe is difficult to say and should be decided separately in each case. On the other hand, the "portrait factory" trained such engravers as Thomas Wright, who greatly improved his skills while working in Russia. Another, Wilhelm August Golicke, became a competent artist, though his works can hardly be thought as absolutely original. Dawe offered his Russian apprentice a home, work, and the chance to create. In his will, Dawe left Golicke an annual allowance, sufficient to afford a modest but decent life. The grateful apprentice did not forget his benefactor: more than once he portrayed him among his family and in the studio.

Dawe's compatriots also took the painter with a grain of salt. Thus, in the prime of their relationship, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Dawe as a friend and soulmate, believing the painter would remain faithful to his artistic principles in the future. The epitome of that friendship became George Dawe's "Genevieve", an illustration to the famous ballad "Love" by Coleridge:

I played a soft and doleful air,
I sang an old and moving story...
The deep, the low, the pleading tone
With which I sang another's love, Interpreted my own.

Later this canvas was to disappear from the public view for a long time, which might only mean that the poet's affection for its author, who appeared to have lost his daring romanticism, had died. The romantic soul mate turned out to be a pragmatic "grub", a wretched moneymaker. On the death of his former friend Coleridge wrote a sarcastic epigram which hardly sounds decent on such a doleful occasion:

As Grub Daws pass'd beneath his Hearse's Lid,
On which a large RESUGRUM met the eye,
Col. Who well knew the Grub, cried –
Lord forbid I trust, he's only telling us a Lie.[15]

Не менее остро высказался об упокоении Доу в соборе св. Павла, в пантеоне славы британской культуры, и тем самым причислении его к лику великих соотечественников Бенджамин Хейдон:

Who longer regards the immortal St. Paul’s
As built but for Heroes to b’inclosed in its walls,
Whose gorge will not rise e'er
Death puts his paw
At the thought of being laid by the great Mr. Dawe.
The great Mr. Dawe, illustrious name,
Oh Shee, Dawe, & Phillips, the darlings of Fame,
Reynolds, Vandyke, & West are nothing to ye.
And ‘tis they that are honored in lying by Shee.[16]

Nevertheless, Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, who had long forgotten past rivalries and his former disrespectful judgment of Dawe, said some lofty and touching words at the funeral, admitting that "Dawe had done much for English Art, he had established its fame over the whole north of Europe and connected it with a work which would not soon be forgotten".[17]


  1. "Negro Overpowering a Buffalo". 1810. Oil on canvas. 203. 8 by 204. 4. The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.
  2. The Life of George Morland, with Remarks on his Works. By G. Dawe, London, Vernor, Hood and Sharpe [etc.] 1807.
  3. "Philip Howorth as the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpent", known after Henry Dawe’s engraving of 1812 (the V&A Museum); the location of the canvas "Mother Rescuing her Child from an Eagle’s Nest", is unknown.
  4. "Genevieve" - in the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington is known as "Lady and the Harper".
  5. The identification of the subject belongs to Galina Andreeva. The location of the original of "O’Neill as Juliet", is unknown. A sketch, oil on canvas. 63.6 by 46 cm.
  6. The Folger Library, Washington.
  7. The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Haydon. Tom Taylor ed.1926, pp. 106-107.
  8. The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon. Edited by Willard Bissell Pope. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts, 1960, v. II, p. 181, note 2.
  9. The Diary of Joseph Farington. Edited by Kathryn Cave. Volume XI, January 1811 - June 1812. Yale University Press. New Haven-London, 1983, p. 3841,3852.
  10. The Daily Telegraph, January 10th, 1996.
  11. Ian Fleming-Williams Constable as a background painter // Country Life, December 23, 1971, p. 1784 (illustrated); John Constable’s Correspondence. Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs. Constable).
  12. V. II, Edited by R.B. Beckett. Suffolk Records Society, v. VI. 1964, p. 142.
  13. Pressley, William L. A catalogue of paintings in the Folger Shakespeare library, 1993, pp. 194-196.
  14. Alexander Bestuzhev. "Pismo k izdatelyu" (A Letter to the Editor). In: "Syn Otechestva"(The Son of the Motherland) 1820, No.44, part 65. Cited as in: "Dekabristy. Esteteka i kritika" (The Decembrists. Aesthetics and Criticism), Moscow, 1991, pp. 70-71.
  15. Also see: Galina Andreeva. "A.S. Pushkin and George Dawe. Novyie stranitsy" (Alexander Pushkin and George Dawe. New discoveries). In: "Iskusstvo" (The Arts), 1989, No.6, pp. 58-62.
  16. A variant kept in the Royal College of Physicians in London.
  17. Layard, G.S.: Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-Bag, London 1906, p. 136.
  18. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. by Kathleen Coburn, v. 3 (1808-1819), London 1973, notes, 4142.
  19. The Diary of Benjamin Robert Hay- don. Edited by Willard Bissell Pope. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts, v. III, 1825-1832, p. 544.
  20. Arnold’s Library of the Fine Arts, 1831, i. 9-17.
GEORGE DAWE. A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo – a fact which occurred in America in 1809. 1810
GEORGE DAWE. A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo – a fact which occurred in America in 1809. 1810.
The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, USA
BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON. Wilson, the Negro model. September 1810
BENJAMIN ROBERT HAYDON. Wilson, the Negro model. September 1810
A Drawing
GEORGE DAWE. Portrait of A.F.Zakrevsky. 1823
GEORGE DAWE. Portrait of A.F.Zakrevsky. 1823
The Alexei Lahman Gallery, Cologne
GEORGE DAWE. Philip Howorth as the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpent. 1811. Engraving by Henry Dawe, 1812
GEORGE DAWE. Philip Howorth as the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpent. 1811
Engraving by Henry Dawe. The V&A Museum, London
GEORGE DAWE. Portrait of Alexander Ermolov. 1825
GEORGE DAWE. Portrait of Alexander Ermolov. 1825
Oil on canvas. State Historical Museum, Moscow
GEORGE DAWE. Portrait of Grand Duchess Anna. 1824–1825
GEORGE DAWE. Portrait of Grand Duchess Anna. 1824–1825
Oil on canvas. Moscow “Ostankino” Estate Museum
GEORGE DAWE. O’Neill as Juliet. A sketch. 1815
GEORGE DAWE. O’Neill as Juliet. A sketch. 1815.
The collection of the Folger Library, Washington
GEORGE DAWE. Demoniac. 1811
GEORGE DAWE. Demoniac. 1811
The Royal Academy of Arts, London
WILHELM AUGUST GOLICKE. The artist’s studio. 1832
WILHELM AUGUST GOLICKE. The artist’s studio. 1832
The Tretyakov Art Gallery, Moscow
J.BENNET, T.WRIGHT. Emperor Alexander I visits the studio of the painter Dawe in Hermitage. 1826
J.BENNET, T.WRIGHT. Emperor Alexander I visits the studio of the painter Dawe in Hermitage. 1826
A print





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