Know Your Chapeau: Lady Peel

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Sir Thomas Lawrence, Lady Peel, 1827

Belonging to the age of Romanticism and what was known as the "golden age" of British portraiture, Sir Thomas Lawrence displays his instinctive skill of depicting the British mannerisms in his subjects. Observing his father's tavern customers as a child, Lawrence quickly picks up on the characteristics of the rich and poor men and women-- especially the fashionable female ones-- and takes on a career as a draughtsman at the age of 10.

With Lawrence's unique sense of Romantic style, the English painter takes a new approach to his painting techniques that nevertheless parallels to emotion seen in numerous portraits in art history. In almost all of his paintings we see a dreary, storm-like background. His subjects stand out in their unique clothing styles and Lawrence's choice of palette, which often times contrasts heavily to the background as a result of the glimmering highlights.

In Sir Thomas Lawrence's Lady Peel, we see a prime example of the painter's fine work. Undoubtedly, the painting follows Lawrence's uniform portrait stencil with a gloomy sky for a background that contrasts to the woman's darkly-draped clothing and her flamboyant red hat. However, I chose this painting not to focus on the fierceness of her hat, but to address how Lawrence effectively utilizes this hat along with her fur coat and gold jewelry as a juxtaposition to the softness that is captured in Lady Peel's face.

The red hat frames the woman's angelic facial expression and compliments the rosy flush in her cheeks. Lawrence paints highlights in the woman's eyes, which look straight at the viewer, to give the piece a somber feeling. To be honest, Lady Peel looks miserable. Maybe she imagined Lawrence to be much some dreamy rugged painter and was dissatisfied with his appearance? Or maybe it's the layers of heavy clothing that make her so uncomfortable that she can't conceive another expression?

Regardless, I believe that Lawrence tries to parallel this unhappiness in her face to the Eurocentric significance that is put on one's status of wealth during the 1800s. By having Lady Peel dressed in expensive attire, the painter might be implying that materialism does not effectively fill these voids of human identity, which everyone searches for at one point or another.

I'm sure in this century many of us wish to rock the hat-game that Europe's elite created in the early 1800s. However, it's important to reflect on the implications of Thomas Lawrence's work, that so perfectly addresses the worthlessness of materialism relative to modern day society.

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