The English artist George Dawe (1781-1829) was known in Europe as a fashionable portraitist and master of engravings. He also produced canvases on historical and mythological themes as well as genre paintings in the spirit of sentimental Romanticism. Dawe paintrd portraits of English generals who distinguished themselves in the Battle of Waterloo. In 1818 the artist was present in Aachen at the Congress of the heads of the states that entered the Holy Alliance. There he was introduced to Alexander I and the Russian emperor invited him to Russia to work on the portaits for the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace.
After his arrival in Petersburg in the spring of 1819, George Dawe stayed in the capital for 10 years. During this time he produced 333 portraits for the Gallery, some by himself, some together with his Russian pupils Vasily (Wilhelm) Golike (died in 1848) and Alexander Polyakov (1801-1835). In the autumn of 1820 a small exhibition of George Dawe’s works was arranged at the Academy of Arts, which was a great success. After that he was elected an honorary member of the Petersburg Academy of Arts. From this time on many members of the tsarist family, courtiers and ministers, high-born noblemen and officers of the Guards began to commission their portraits from Dawe. The artist managed to paint all of them.
Portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna
It is interesting to note that none of Dawe’s contemporaries left us a description of the way he looked and behaved, since he lived in seclusion. Dawe tirelessly worked in Petersburg, spent many hours at his easel either in the palace studio or in the wealthy homes of his clients.
At the beginning Dawe worked alone, but then he created a workshop. First there came from England his son-in-law Thomas Wright and his younger brother Henry Dawe, who did engravings after George Dawe’s paintings. These engravings were in great demand. They were bought by the persons portrayed who gave them as gifts to their relatives, as well as by their colleagues, institutions they headed and by the educational establishments where they had studied.
In 1822 two assistants joined Dawe’s studio: Alexander Polyakov and Vasily (Wilhelm) Golike. Although all the portraits were entered in the Hermitage’s catalogue as works by George Dawe, there are obvious stylistic differences among them. Undoubtedly some of them were not painted by Dawe himself but by some of his assistants. In 1828 Dawe was granted the title of the first portrait painter of the Russian Imperial court and soon he left Petersburg. At that time the master was a member of the Petersburg and London Academies of Arts; he was also elected to the Vienna, Florence, Paris, Munich, Dresden and Stockholm Academies.
In February 1829 Dawe returned to Petersburg to do a life-size portrait of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich and to finish several other portraits for the Gallery. His sharply deteriorating health forced him to leave for London, where he died in October 1829.
Portrait of Emperor Alexander I
After Dawe’s death his son-in-law Thomas Wright, who had arrived in Russia to look after the artist’s inheritance, completed three portraits of generals which Dawe had begun as well as the portrait of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich.
View of the Embankment of Vasilyevsky
Island by the Academy of Arts from the Neva
The many comments of contemporaries reveal that the surprising thing in Dawe’s artistry was his ability to convey precisely the appearance of his models, as well as his skill. "The mechanical manner of his hand is quite specific: his brushstrokes are broad, bold, quick, though too quick in applying paints, sometimes it seems that he doesn’t touch them at all. Thus, all of Dawe’s portraits appear to be works a la prima, like sketches…" This is how Pavel Svinyin decribed Dawe’s technique in the Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland) magazine in 1820. The theatrical and Romantic inspiration of the compositions and the sketchy approach which often could be confused with carelessness, evoked some dissatisfaction among art critics who nevertheless reserved their highest epithets for Dawe.