Editor's note: The following essays were rekeyed and reprinted on June 5, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of Debra Force Fine Art, 13 East 69th Street, Suite 4F, New York, NY 10021. The essays were excerpted from the illustrated catalogue titled "Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon." If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Debra Force Fine Art at 212-734-3636 or through either this email or web address:
Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon
by Barbara Dayer Gallati
In 1895 an article appeared in Munsey's Magazine titled "An American Painter of the English Court." The piece opened with the declaration: "Three distinguished American portrait painters have flourished side by side in this generation among the mists and glooms of London." Whereas one might expect John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) or James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) to head the list, neither was mentioned by name, presumably because the author assumed that his readers would automatically recognize that they were two of the three expatriates in question. Instead, the author focused on James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), a young artist who was then rising in the ranks of British society portrait painters to a status second only to that of Sargent. At a time when the British portrait market was highly competitive, Shannon's achievement challenges belief. Yet, by dint of talent, force of will, and sheer good luck, the artist from rural upstate New York enjoyed a flourishing career on both sides of the Atlantic.
Shannon was born in the small city of Auburn, New York, on February 3, 1862, to Irish parents, who had settled in the United States shortly after their marriage. His father was a contractor involved with railway development, a job that entailed frequent relocation for his wife and seven children. According to anecdotal family history, the future artist came by his unusual middle name as a result of an accident had by his mother in the final days of her pregnancy with him. When the horse pulling her buggy bolted, Mrs. Shannon fainted and woke to find herself being cared for by the chief of a local Indian tribe, whose name was Jebusa. She gave birth the following day and, believing that chief had saved her life, she named her infant son after her rescuer.
By 1875 the Shannons were living in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. It was there that James Jebusa Shannon's passion for art emerged. Although initially reluctant, Patrick Shannon permitted his son to take art lessons with a local painter, William E. Wright, whose encouragement ultimately led to the decision that the aspiring artist would go to England for formal study. Thus, in 1878, at the age of sixteen, Shannon enrolled at the South Kensington School in London (now the Royal College of Art), where he trained chiefly with Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) until 1881. Shannon's three years under Poynter's guidance brought him significant accolades, including the school's gold medal for drawing, a prize that prompted two commissions from Queen Victoria. The two paintings, The Honourable Horatia Stopford and Mrs. Henry Bourke, were shown respectively at the 1881 and 1882 annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Although both portraits reveal the workings of an as yet unsophisticated hand, the prestige attached to painting for the queen convinced Shannon to remain in England and to specialize in portraiture.
With his father's financial reversals, Shannon was forced to quit his formal training in 1881. In 1885, after shifting from one small studio to another, he moved to the Merton Villas Studios in Manresa Road, Chelsea, London, which he occupied until 1888. The friendships and professional affiliations he forged during this period were instrumental in the development of his art over the next decade and were also crucial in affecting his integration within the larger artistic community of London. As part of the enclave of painters and sculptors who gathered in the area (including Henry Herbert La Thangue [1859-1929], George Percy Jacomb-Hood [1857-1929] and Thomas Stirling-Lee [1856-1916]), Shannon became acquainted with progressive aesthetics imported mainly from France. During this fruitful period he explored techniques ranging from the "square brush" facture inspired by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) and transmitted to him by La Thangue; the direct-painting practice of Carolus-Duran (1837-1917); the broken brushwork and high-key color of Impressionism; and the limited, muted palette of Whistler.
Shannon's outgoing, magnetic personality suited the tenor of the community, and he contributed to the founding of the illustrious Chelsea Arts Club and the then-revolutionary New English Art Club, an artists' organization intended to be an alternative to the hierarchical and conservative Royal Academy. These associations placed him, in the public eye, among the young stylistic innovators in English art -- as one of the "moderns." However, Shannon never committed his loyalties unreservedly to a single aesthetic and rarely did he bend to any organization's exhibition policy. This is reflected in the variety of styles he engaged throughout his career and his practice of exhibiting at a wide range of venues, including the New English Art Club, the Grosvenor Gallery, the New Gallery, the Institute of Painters in Oil-Colours, and the Society of British Artists (during Whistler's tenure as president). He simultaneously courted the favor of those having more conservative tastes, mainly through his contributions to exhibitions at the Royal Academy, which remained the seat of cultural power in the British art world.
In fact, it was Shannon's ability to bridge the widening gulf between tradition and innovation that distinguished his art. This is especially apparent in his striking self-portrait (fig. 1). Painted in 1884, it portrays a handsome, intense young man, with a vaguely bohemian attitude. The image itself falls into a long line of self-portraits in Western art and calls to mind earlier self-portraits by such illustrious masters as Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). By fusing the imagery of earlier artists with a facture that aligned him with advanced techniques (such as the square brushwork of La Thangue), Shannon participated in pioneering a new mode of painting for the British audience.
Although he had received a moderate number of favorable mentions in reviews throughout the early-to-mid-1880s, it was not until 1888 that Shannon "arrived" as an artist to be taken seriously, mainly as a result of two paintings shown at the prestigious Grosvenor Gallery, a venue that showed works by invitation only.  The first was Henry Vigne, Master of the Epping Forest Harriers (1887, unlocated), a full-length portrait of the distinguished ninety-year-old in hunting attire, riding crop in hand. As one critic proclaimed, the picture "confirms the report that a fresh candidate is about to dispute the profits of realistic portrait painting with Mr. Sargent, Mr. Herkomer [Hubert von Herkomer, 1849-1914], and Mr. Holl [Frank Holl, 1845-1888].  The portrait later earned Shannon the status of hors concours when it was shown at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. The second painting, Myrrah (unlocated) is reported to have piqued the attention of Lady Violet Manners (later the Marchioness of Granby and the future Duchess of Rutland), who paid a visit to Shannon's studio, thus inaugurating three decades of her family's patronage of the artist (see cats. 13 and 14).
With Violet Manners' support, Shannon's reputation as a portraitist was fully launched. The increasing number of commissions he received required more salubrious surroundings for his growing roster of high society clients and to that end he took a larger space at the Alexandra Studios, Alfred Place, Kensington (fig. 2), located within comfortable walking distance of the Phillimore Gardens home that he shared with his wife, Florence (whom he married in 1886, see cat. 10) and their daughter Kitty (1887-1974, see cats. 4, 5, 8, and 11) (fig. 3). The rapidity with which Shannon's career progressed is witnessed by his purchase of a highly desirable property in Holland Park Road, the site of the original Holland Park farm house and, what is more important, next door to Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), the estimable president of the Royal Academy. Under the 1892 leasehold agreement Shannon undertook to alter the farmhouse and build a studio as well. The end result was essentially a double-fronted structure in which the farmhouse and new studio were united by a shared façade dominated by a massive Flemish gable. The orange brick structure was unusual in that it had two main entrances, one that led to the studio and one to the family's domestic spaces (fig. 4).
1892 also marked a period of extended travel for the artist. That year he returned to the United States to visit his parents and made his first trip to the Continent -- a tour that inspired the architectural plan for his new home and studio. Although his European itinerary is unknown, the trip was likely the first of many seasonal stays spent near Schuylenburg, a small manor house near Egmond aan den Hoef, Holland, occupied by his friend, the American artist George Hitchcock (1850-1916). Hitchcock and another American artist, Gari Melchers (1860-1932), had established themselves as summer residents at Egmond in the early 1880s. Known for their depictions of local peasants, the two exerted thematic and stylistic influence on Shannon, whose holiday sojourns (primarily in the company of Hitchcock) yielded a fair number of paintings, including a portrait of Hitchcock (circa 1892, Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, Savannah, Georgia), several genre paintings of girls in Dutch costume, and his fine double portrait of Kitty and Florence Shannon, In the Dunes (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC). The warm friendships Shannon established with the two men endured, as evidenced by the painting by Hitchcock that remained in Shannon's possession (fig. 5) and Shannon's portrait of Melchers (circa 1902, Belmont, The Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, Fredericksburg, Virginia). The Shannons' stays with Henriette and George Hitchcock (known as "Miggles" and "Gorgeous," as Kitty Shannon recalled) ended in 1905, when the Hitchcocks divorced.
Shannon's excursions into genre painting represent only a small portion of his output;, however, he is today best known for this aspect of his art. His Jungle Tales (fig. 6) garnered the first of many critical accolades when it made its public debut at the New Gallery (London) in 1895. Universally praised from the outset, the painting was subsequently exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 as Fairy Tales. Jungle Tales entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection with another of Shannon's paintings (Magnolia, 1899) in 1913, both works having been previously owned by the renowned collectors George McCulloch and Arthur Hoppock Hearn, respectively. These paintings, along with The Flower Girl (circa 1900, Tate Britain) are now known widely through reproduction, yet audiences for these popular images are rarely aware of details of the artist's career.
Despite his American heritage, Shannon's art was not formally introduced to American audiences until he exhibited in the British section of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago, where he received an honorable mention. As his career in London progressed, however, American commentators were quick to claim him, proudly citing his origins. A watershed in Shannon's visibility in the United States occurred in 1897, when news of his election to associate status in the Royal Academy of Arts hit the American press. As one reporter asserted, Shannon's election and that of Sargent to full academic status had made it "an American day at the Royal Academy." Writing about Shannon, the same commentator declared, "As to Mr. Shannon, his career in England has been simply phenomenal. Almost unknown three or four years ago, he has, with his grace, elegance, and refinement, climbed to the very top of the ladder." Shannon came into greater prominence when Miss Kitty (see fig. 10, cat. 8) was awarded the gold medal at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, an honor that occasioned his subsequent membership on the Carnegie International jury. From the late 1890s through the first decades of the twentieth century Shannon's name appeared frequently in the American press, which at that time devoted extensive coverage to the major London art venues as well as to the large international exhibitions throughout Europe. More to Shannon's benefit was the fact that many potential American clients were likely to have seen his work as a result of their seasonal transatlantic crossings, highlights of which included visits to the Academy, the Paris Salon, and other important annual exhibitions.
The factors cited here attest to the fact that the American market was primed for Shannon's New York arrival in late 1904, the first of three consecutive annual visits to the United States. Shannon's timing for this seemingly sudden emphasis on developing new patronage for his art was ideal. His reputation as a painter of England's aristocracy was secure, he had recently been awarded a gold medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, and the demand for society portraiture was at its height, as witnessed by the veritable army of foreign portrait specialists who spent months at a time in the United States, swamped with commissions. What is more, Shannon, like Sargent, had a distinct advantage over his American and European rivals because his American citizenship satisfied clients who desired a high-style portrait by an internationally acclaimed artist and yet wanted to "buy American." Yet, buying American in this case did not mean buying on the cheap; in 1907 Shannon's fee for a full-length portrait was a comparatively staggering seven-thousand-five-hundred dollars.
Shannon's arrival was announced in American Art News: "James J. Shannon, the American portrait painter, who has lived long in England, is sharing this season the studio of Frank D. Millet at no. 6 East Twenty-third Street, and is painting several portraits for which he has received commissions. Shannon stands in the front rank of modern portrait painters, and an exhibition of his portraits will, it is understood, be an event of the late art season."
The three winter seasons Shannon spent in the United States yielded numerous commissions, some of which took him beyond New York (where, in 1906, he moved to a studio in the Bryant Park Building, 80 West Fortieth Street) to Providence, Rhode Island, and to Lenox and Boston, Massachusetts. Among the sitters for the more than thirty-five American portraits by Shannon thus far documented are such notable society figures as Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Mrs. Percy Rivington Pyne, Mrs. Robert Minturn, and Bishop Henry Codman Potter. The fruits of his stateside labors were advertised in a series of three small exhibitions held at M. Knoedler & Co., in 1905, 1906, and 1907, all of which received favorable reviews that generally affirmed that "freedom and breadth of execution, with astonishing texture and naturalness of expression are noticeable qualities in Mr. Shannon's latest work." The publicity surrounding Shannon's American activity was heightened by a strategically placed article by the noted critic Christian Brinton that was published in 1906. Titled "A Painter of Fair Women," the article was liberally illustrated with examples of the artist's English and American productions, chosen no doubt to underscore the refined beauty and social distinction of his sitters on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is nothing to indicate that Shannon ever returned to the United States after 1907. Yet, it may have been that he planned to do so given that 1908 was the only year that he participated in the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, having been made an associate academician that year. However, Shannon's professional schedule in England was demanding, made more so by his 1909 election to full academic status in the Royal Academy and his election to the presidency of the Society of Portrait Painters (London) in 1910. The latter organization was then floundering, but the situation was remedied the following year largely through Shannon's efforts and, in July 1911, he was able to announce that the Society would become "Royal" under the patronage of George V.
By the second decade of the twentieth century the main outlet for Shannon's exhibition activity was the Royal Academy -- a fact that is indicative of the changing shape of the London art world as it responded to the impact of modernism, the closing of old and opening of new galleries, and, of course, the shift in cultural currency from the older generation of artists to the new. Nevertheless, Shannon's career continued to flourish until 1914, a year that proved to be a critical one in several ways. In February Shannon was appointed the Chairman of the British Committee for the Anglo-American Exposition that was held in London later that year. By August, however, Britain was engaged in World War I, the upheaval of which, for the art world, resulted in fewer commissions, fewer exhibitions, and a significant reduction in the amount of attention given to the arts in the press. It was in 1914 as well that Shannon suffered a serious injury in a riding accident that eventually confined him to a wheelchair.
Shannon continued to paint a number of fine commissioned portraits, including one of the whiskey-baron-philanthropist James Buchanan (later Lord Woolavington) (untraced). Shown at the Royal Academy in 1918, the painting was apparently the talk of the art community, which as a whole, considered the work the "premier picture in the Academy." Generally, Shannon's weakened condition prevented him from working on large canvases and he turned to painting plein-air genre subjects of moderate size. Characterized by their freshness, vibrant colors, and rapid execution, these paintings bear witness to the artist's sheer love of painting. And, as one commentator put it, this new aesthetic direction seemed to "enlarge his painting delight."
Shannon's contributions to the arts were officially recognized when he received a knighthood from King George V in 1922. A plaque was installed at St. James's Piccadilly, London, commemorating his March 6, 1923 death.
1 James Creelman, "An American Painter of the English Court," Munsey's Magazine, vol. XIV, no. 2 (November 1895), 129.
2 W. Graham Robertson, Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1931), 234. Robertson was, among other things, a noted aesthete, stage designer, and artist. A friend of Shannon and Sargent, he recalled Shannon in the 1890s as being Sargent's "most formidable rival among portrait painters."
3 Unless indicated otherwise, information presented here is from Barbara Dayer Gallati, "Portraits of Artistry and Artifice: The Career of Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1862-1923." Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1992.
4 The Honourable Horatia Stopford (1880) and Mrs. Henry Bourke (1881) are in the Royal Collection, UK.
5 The Manresa Road artists were featured in Morley Roberts, "A Colony of Artists," Scottish Art Review, vol. II, no. 15 (August 1889), 72-77.
6 Referring to the "square-brush" method associated with the Manresa Road contingent, Roberts wrote: "Certainly among those who owe much to La Thangue must be reckoned J. J. Shannon, the young portrait painter, who is rapidly rising to the foremost rank. . . . his present quiet method has been arrived at through the clever and evidently dexterous brush-work which he learnt originally from La Thangue." Ibid., 73.
7 For a history of the Grosvenor Gallery, see Christopher Newall, The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibitions: Change and Continuity in the Victorian Art World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
8 "The Grosvenor Gallery. Second Notice," Athenaeum (May 19, 1888), 638.
9 For a history of the Holland Park development and the list of the many artists resident there in the nineteenth century, see Caroline Dakers, The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
10 For a general history of the American artists working in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century, see Annette Stott, "American Painters Who Worked in the Netherlands, 1880-1914," Ph.D diss., Boston University, 1986.
11 "An American Day in Art," New York Times (January 30, 1897).
12 For a discussion of the boom in society portraiture during the Gilded Age, see "Gilded Age Portraiture: Cultural Capital Personified," in Barbara Dayer Gallati, ed., Beauty's Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America, exh. cat., New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in association with D. Giles Limited, London, 2013, 10-49.
13 "Around the Studios," American Art News, 3 (November 19, 1904), n.p.
14 Most of the portraits painted by Shannon in the United States have descended in the families of the sitters.
15 "Exhibitions Now On," American Art News, 5 (March 16, 1907), n.p.
16 Christian Brinton, "A Painter of Fair Women," Munsey's Magazine, vol. 35, no. 2 (May 1906), 133-143.
17 "News and Notes," New York Times, April 12, 1908. Shannon had made a single appearance at the 1906 exhibition of the Society of American Artists (Ideal Head, no. 372, owned by the artist's sister-in-law, Mrs. W.J. Shannon) and it was probably on the basis of his affiliation with the Society of American Artists that he was admitted to the National Academy of Design as an associate after the two organizations merged in 1907. The two paintings displayed at the National Academy -- Mrs. Samuel Untermyer (1906, Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York) and Irene Untermyer (unlocated) -- had been seen previously at Knoedler's and at the Royal Academy.
18 Letter from Lord Dewar to James Buchanan, April 29, 1918, quoted in Kitty Shannon, For My Children, 236-7.
19 "Art Exhibitions: The Late Sir J. J. Shannon's Paintings,"
Morning Post, June 19, 1923.
About the Author
Barbara Dayer Gallati, Ph.D., is Curator Emerita, American Art, Brooklyn Museum, where she organized numerous exhibitions, including William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (2000) and Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children (2004). Her most recent curatorial projects for the New-York Historical Society are Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy (2011) and Beauty's Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America (2013) for which she was volume editor and principal author of the accompanying catalogues. She lives in Bristol, England.
About Debra Force Fine Art
Located in New York City, Debra Force Fine Art specializes in American paintings, drawings, and sculpture from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and offers exceptional works in a variety of price ranges with a focus on quality and research. With over 30 years of curatorial, auction, and retail experience, Debra Force established the gallery in 1999 and is a member of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and the Private Art Dealers Association (PADA).
The exhibition Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon, being held May 1 through June 30, 2014 at Debra Force Fine Art, is accompanied by a 52-page, fully illustrated catalogue by Dr. Barbara Dayer Gallati, which can be obtained by contacting the gallery.
(above: front cover for the exhibition catalogue Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon. Image courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art)
Images from the exhibition with accompanying essays
(above: James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), Spot Red, 1896, oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 20 1/4 inches, signed and dated lower left: 'J. J. Shannon/96'. Image courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art)
Spot Red is a rare and significant example from Shannon's oeuvre that demonstrates his artistic ambition when he was freed from the confines of commissioned portraiture. The painting was first exhibited in Shannon's one-man exhibition at London's Fine Art Society in 1896, a small show of twenty-four works highlighting the artist's progress to date. Writing in the catalogue accompanying the display, the English art critic Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921) described Spot Red, saying, "the graceful lady with the billiard cue is an attractive subject-picture, noticeable for the grace of the model and for the grace of the arrangement of line." Wedmore went on to summarize the character of Shannon's art: "He is a modern of the moderns, but one who, while he has never been enslaved by tradition, has likewise never violently revolted from it. While declining to be conventional, he could not be eccentric." Wedmore's observations were on the mark inasmuch as Shannon adopted an innovative Whistlerian approach without compromising the naturalism he customarily devoted to portraying the attractive female form.
Indeed, Spot Red, with its lack of overt narrative, monochromatic arrangement of warm greys and whites, compositional asymmetry, and a title referencing the one bright note of color, clearly indicates that Shannon took inspiration from Whistler. Yet, such allegiance to what were considered to be Whistler's eccentric aesthetics did not overtake Shannon's goal of portraying a "real" woman of flesh and blood whose seductive power is communicated by her pose and direct facial expression. Shannon's tendency to straddle the line between the naturalistic and the highly aestheticized was observed in 1897, shortly after his election to associate membership in the Royal Academy of Arts: "Mr. Shannon loves to paint in a somewhat low key, and seems to aim at a compromise between the tone of Mr. Whistler and the elegant facility of Mr. Sargent."
The iconography of a billiard-playing woman is unusual and leads to uncharted, speculative territory. On the one hand, Shannon may have simply chosen the motif for its decorative potential. On the other hand, there may be a meaning attached to this imagery that was familiar to viewers in the 1890s, but is now lost to us. Tantalizing hints regarding the possible symbolism embedded in the image may be found in Henry James's What Maisie Knew, a novel first published in London in installments beginning in 1897, in which one of the main characters (Ida Farange) is an accomplished billiard player, whose prowess in wielding the cue is interpreted as a sexual metaphor for her behavior. This type of reading ties in with the rules of the game; played with three balls (two white and one red), billiards lends itself to triangular strategems that here suggest romantic intrigue. By extension, a subtext surfaces in which the purely objective meaning of the red ball merges with the apple of temptation offered by Eve. Indeed, Shannon's model does appear to offer (or display) the ball held loosely in her hand, but what we are to make of this remains ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, so given that Shannon and his wife Florence (née Cartwright) shared their home (by then a magnificent house and studio in the prestigious Holland Park Road) with Florence's sister, Liz, who often sat for the artist and who may be the sitter for Spot Red. 
Spot Red continued to attract positive critical attention and was reproduced in the first article devoted exclusively to Shannon in which the painting was noted for "grace of pose and delicacy of colour" and stood in contrast to the "chromatic violence" of other examples of his art at the opposite end of his aesthetic range.  The painting was included in a small memorial exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries, London, in 1923, at which time a writer for the Times (London) remarked: "Now and then, as in 'Spot Red'. . . the grace of his work is spontaneous and complete." 
1 Catalogue of a Collection of Pictures by J. J. Shannon with a Note by Mr. Frederick Wedmore (London: Fine Art Society, June 1896), 5.
2 M. H. Spielmann, "The Royal Academy Elections," The Graphic 1417 (January 23, 1897), 92.
3 Paul Theroux, Introduction to Henry James, What Maisie Knew (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 12.
4 Theroux also points to the opinion held by Henry James's brother, the famous pioneer psychologist William James, who compared billiard-playing with tight-rope-dancing saying that both demanded "the most delicate appreciation of minute disparities of sensation." (William James, Principles of Psychology, I, xiii, 509), cited Ibid., 267.
5 The figure resembles Liz Cartwright, but no firm identification can be made. Tensions did arise within what was essentially a benign ménage-a-trois: the artist's granddaughter explained that Florence Shannon had cut down a painting in anger to eliminate her sister Liz from the composition. (Conversation with Julia Gibbons, 1983.)
6 Alfred Lys Baldry, "J.J. Shannon," The Magazine of Art 20 (November 1896), illus. 3; 4, 5.
7 "Art Exhibitions. The Leicester Galleries," Times,
June 19, 1923, 12.
(above: James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), Mrs. Harold
Burke, circa 1898, oil on canvas, 73 1/4 x 39 inches, signed lower center:
'J. J. Shannon'. Image courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art)
This recently rediscovered full-length portrait of the striking Mrs. Harold Burke is a fine example of Shannon's mature style for formal portraiture. Like the majority of these commissioned works, the painting has remained in the family of the sitter. The portrait demonstrates Shannon's inherent interest in the texture of the oil medium itself, a concern that is revealed here in the roughly worked, irregular surface of the patterned backdrop, and the broadly applied dry brushwork that defines and highlights the varied fabrics of the gown. The full-length composition also reflects the growing tendency on the part of Shannon, Sargent, and their contemporaries to draw on the Grand Manner tradition of such earlier masters as Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Gainsborough, and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Shannon took particular inspiration from Lawrence's art, manifesting it in his love of sumptuous, glistening fabrics often realized with a palette of reds, blacks, and whites, and his desire for a heightened level of animation and vitality in his sitters' facial expressions and poses. And, as shown here, Shannon's use of patterned backdrops provided a handsome alternative to compositions in which sitters were posed in landscape settings. Indeed, his preference for such variegated foils exhibits the decorative flair that characterized his style.
The sitter, Beatrice Mary Clifford Aveling Burke (1874-1970), was the daughter of Stephen Thomas Aveling and the former Mary Phoebe Clifford. She was born in the historic Restoration House in Rochester, Kent, the family mansion so-named because Charles II stayed there on the eve of his restoration to the crown in 1660. Restoration House, now open to the public, was also the model for Charles Dickens's fictional Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham, a pivotal character in Great Expectations (1861). Beatrice Aveling married the artist Harold Arthur Burke (1852-1942) in 1893, at Rochester Cathedral.
Because they were attempting to establish their careers simultaneously in London, Shannon and Harold Burke likely knew each other. Shannon had painted portraits of a Mrs. Charles Burke and Charles Burke (shown at the New English Art Club in 1887 and 1888, respectively), who were presumably the brother and sister-in-law of Harold Burke. However, Harold Burke's was a privileged background (he was educated at Cheltenham College and Liège University and studied at the Royal Academy [London] and in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts) and because of that, he and Shannon likely did not travel in the same circles. Burke's artistic accomplishments were ultimately minor ones, perhaps in part because he had no pressing financial need to succeed. His chief exhibition outlet was the Royal Society of British Artists of which he was vice president from 1915 to 1919.
Although the portrait received favorable reviews when it
was shown at the New Gallery (London) in 1898, it was subsequently modified,
most likely at the behest of the sitter.
1 Harold Burke was the son of James St. George Burke, QC, and had a younger brother, Charles Carrington Burke (1853-1904).
2 The painting was reproduced in A Record of Art in 1898 (London: The Studio, 1898), 78, and originally showed a cat lounging on a settee against which Mrs. Burke was leaning. The author's conversation with a collateral descendant of Beatrice Burke indicated that she owned a beloved dachshund, a fact that may account for the modification of the painting.
To view additional images from the exhibition with accompanying essays, please click here.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Julianna Tancredi, Registrar & Administrator, Debra Force Fine Art, Inc., for help concerning permission for reprinting the above texts.
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