At Frick Madison, highlights from the collection are in conversation across media, geography, and time—often in unexpected ways. Middle Ground investigates surprising dialogues between pairs of works of art on view, speaking to the connections waiting to be discovered at our temporary home.
Foreground: “Fortitude and Character”
On the fourth floor of Frick Madison, visitors encounter the grandeur of British and French portraiture. Lush curls cascade from the crowns of society beauties, jewels glisten from wrists and fingers, and men and women sport powdered wigs. Many of these representations celebrate, and aim to convince viewers of, their sitters’ wealth or fashionable sensibilities, particularly in the pictures of elite European women prized by Henry Clay Frick. There are also exquisite portraits in the collection, however, that promote another virtue: diplomatic and military prowess. While a less conspicuous subject in the Frick’s holdings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, it is one rich in visual detail and biographical intrigue.
The British general John Burgoyne (1722–1792) was depicted in the 1760s by his close friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, only a few years before the painter would become the first president of London’s Royal Academy. Half a century later, the French sculptor Joseph Chinard portrayed a promising young man in Napoleon Bonaparte’s government, Étienne Vincent de Margnolas (1781–1809), in terracotta. Evident in these two male portraits at the Frick are some of the formal qualities their respective regimes valued, but chiefly they express the fortitude and character of their sitters. Hidden in both images, however, are the misfortunes and tragedies that would soon befall both them and the political powers to which they devoted their lives.
Background: “On the Threshold”
Reynolds and Chinard each drew on the model of antiquity in their art. For the British painter, this manifested in idealized forms as part of his effort to elevate portraiture to the high station of historical painting. This mode of portraiture, known as the Grand Manner, informs the image of General Burgoyne, whose stance mirrors the famed Roman statue, the Apollo Belvedere. Of course, the authoritative, looming figure of Burgoyne also serves to project British military might.
A similar political motivation is more overt in the bust by Chinard, who was the favorite sculptor of Napoleon’s family. The burgeoning French empire merged elements of the popular Neoclassical style with new imperial motifs, betraying a desire to recall the prestige of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Thus in the bust of Margnolas, his eyes have no irises—reminiscent of classical marble sculptures—and his smooth, handsome face is individualized but flawless.
Margnolas, like the sculptor, was from Lyon, and it was there that he first held a government position, overseeing the hospices of the city. In 1807, at only twenty-six years of age, he received the prestigious Légion d’Honneur, an order of merit established by Napoleon recognizing exceptional service to France. In Chinard’s terracotta, Margnolas wears the badge of Chevalier (below, right), a five-pointed star with the emperor’s profile at its center. The three-lobed motif lining his cloak signifies his membership in the Conseil d’État, the supreme legislative body in Napoleon’s government; his election to the council likely prompted the bust’s commission.
Juxtaposed with this formal finery, his lace jabot, with its many ripples and scalloped edges, falls asymmetrically from his neck, and the wide collar of his cloak bends back, askew, as though he has been caught in a gust of wind and is too dignified to adjust it. His thick mass of long curls tumbles over onto his forehead, enhancing the portrait’s romantic appeal. Believed to be a preparatory work for an eventual bust in marble—Chinard was known to produce highly finished terracotta models—this object places the viewer in the presence of a dashing, dedicated man on the threshold of a lustrous career in Napoleonic society.
John Burgoyne’s life was different from Margnolas’s in many ways, but a closer look at the story behind this portrait reveals parallels. Born in 1722 into an upper-class family in London, Burgoyne rose through the ranks of the British cavalry and became leader, in 1759, of a new regiment, the 16th Light Dragoons, for which he determined the uniform. In Reynolds’s painting, the general’s bold red coat is punctuated by gleaming buttons and embroidered buttonholes, and it opens widely at his waist to frame the beige vest that pinches around his slightly plump physique. In Burgoyne’s left hand, he holds a leather hat (above, left) adorned with the king’s cipher GR (“George Rex”) and the regiment’s Latin motto, Aut cursu, aut cominus armis (“Either in the charge or in hand-to-hand combat”). A skirmish takes place behind him, with neat lines of British soldiers receding into the landscape, while dark smoky clouds fill the canvas behind his head. Burgoyne towers over the low horizon line and appears as though on a stage, the hero before the backdrop of the battlefield.
John Burgoyne was known for his brash character; strong-willed and extravagant, he was also a gambler, actor, and philanderer. Among his own soldiers, though, he was known as “Gentleman Johnny” for the respect he showed them, and his confident attitude in the portrait is not without merit. In the early 1760s, the general and his dragoons were sent to Portugal as part of a campaign against Spain in the Seven Years’ War, and there Burgoyne led the capture of Valencia. It was likely this success that resulted in the commission for the portrait, in which we encounter a man poised to reach heroic heights for his nation.
Middle Ground: “Life and Loss”
A succession of accolades and lofty appointments already marked Margnolas for success in a new chapter of French politics at the time Chinard immortalized him in clay. A mere five years later, however, the emperor would surrender, ushering in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy—which Margnolas would not even live to witness. He died suddenly of pneumonia in late 1809, the same year he commissioned this bust as a new statesman of a soon-to-be-defunct empire.
When Reynolds was painting Burgoyne, neither he nor contemporary viewers could have anticipated the historical loss they were to suffer a decade later in the American Revolutionary War, in which Burgoyne was forced to surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, the key turning point in the American victory. He returned to Britain with his military reputation marred by such a significant blunder. Throughout the remainder of his days, the former general turned to another passion he had pursued throughout his life: theater. While in the Frick portrait Burgoyne asserts his commanding figure before the stage of war, he spent his later years behind the stage as a playwright.
The colorful Englishman has not often been treated favorably by history, and the young Margnolas died too early to know if he would be written into it. Not only did they confront sudden and severe downfalls following their portraits—Margnolas’s, of course, sooner and far more tragic—but the powers they represented would themselves collapse as well.
Yet at the Frick, the two men stand proudly in moments of glory, fully embodying the grandeur they possessed in the instances they were captured in paint and clay. As both general and statesman gaze confidently into the future, they are, paradoxically, frozen in time and space. We as viewers now have the privilege of hindsight that they lack. The result is a beguiling duality of life and loss, a poignant reflection on the human condition the likes of which only portraiture can inspire.