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Acquisitions

UMMA Acquires Monumental English Portrait


John Hoppner
Portrait of Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Bt. of Acton Park, Wrexham, Denbighshire
1787-1834
Oil on canvas
Museum purchase, 2007/2.1

As a university art museum with global reach, UMMA takes seriously its responsibility to collect works of art that do not shy away from controversial or uncomfortable topics. When recently a major painting became available that not only embodied exceptional artistic merit but also tackled head on one of the most significant moral and social justice issues—the triangular slave trade of the 18th century—the Museum sprang into action.

John Hoppner’s Portrait of Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Bt. of Acton Park, Wrexham, Denbighshire (1787–1834) portrays the son and grandson of slave traders, whose family business included five trading posts in Virginia and up to 26 ships that worked the transatlantic slave trade between Africa, the Americas, and England. Though the firm stopped trading in 1759, Cunliffe acquired Acton Park with the wealth inherited from his father and subsequently became an active member of English society.

In this grand manner portrait, Cunliffe is attired in archery uniform—fitting for the founder of the Royal Society of British Bowsmen. Posed elegantly in a tensile stance mirrored by adjacent trees, Cunliffe gazes away from his bow, his head spotlighted against his thatch of white hair and the dark leafy canopy. The deeply recessed landscape suggests the enormity of the family estate. Hoppner also painted two portraits of Cunliffe’s wife, Harriot, one of which resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Hoppner—whose family lived at court—was recognized early as a “Lad of Genius” by King George III, and was tutored in the arts by the keeper of the King’s drawings and medals. By 1789, when he was appointed portrait artist to the future King George IV, Hoppner was widely regarded to be the most important portraitist in England. As the successor to English masters Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Hoppner painted many of the most distinguished figures of the time. His careful yet blowsy brushwork, attention to costume and texture, and pure, vibrant palette owes much to his predecessors, but Hoppner cultivated a personal style of sensitive, well-executed likenesses. In 1795 he was elected Royal Academician, one of the elite artist-members responsible for governing Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Once UMMA’s new and newly restored galleries open, the Hoppner canvas will be paired with a grand manner portrait from the other side of the English Channel, Francois Gérard’s romantic likeness of Maximilien-Sébastian Foy (1826), the general who led Napoleon’s campaign in Spain, in full military attire. Though stylistically distinct, these two large-scale portraits set within landscapes—both acquired through purchase on the international art market—will serve as pendants among UMMA’s exemplary European and American paintings holdings.

Stephanie Rieke
Associate Editor