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George Dawe (6 February 1781, St James's, Westminster – 15 October 1829, Kentish Town) was an English portraitist who painted 329 portraits of Russian generals active during Napoleon's invasion of Russia for the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace. He relocated to Saint Petersburg in 1819, where he won acclaim for his work from the artistic establishment and complimentary verses by Pushkin.
One of his brothers was Henry Edward Dawe, also a portraitist.
Early life and later career
George Dawe was born on 6 February 1781 to Philip Dawe and Jane in Brewer Street, in the parish of St James's. Philip was an artist and engraver in mezzotint who had worked with Hogarth and who also produced satirical political cartoons about life in America which are still highly regarded today. George was the first child born to the couple and there would be other successful artists in the family.
Dawe was baptised on 25 February 1781 at St James’ Church in Piccadilly. He would later become one of the most successful artists of his generation and an international celebrity of considerable fame and wealth. Although he is not well known today, it is less than 180 years since he became the First Portrait Painter of the Imperial Court in Russia.
Dawe originally trained with his father as an engraver and became very accomplished from an early age. He later became mainly interested in painting and went on to study at the Royal Academy of Arts. He was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1809 and became an Academician in 1814.
He collected old masters and studied modern and classical languages, philosophy and literature. He also studied anatomy as part of his pursuit of a better understanding of the human form and undertook human dissections in his own home as well as attending operations to improve his knowledge of the human body.
His painting of classical subjects won much praise and were the making of his early reputation but he was more interested in financial success and sought portraiture commissions which were lucrative and which brought him into contact with high society. However, the direct way in which he promoted his own work was not approved of by artistic society and brought considerable criticism from his contemporaries, one of whom was Constable, who painted a background for a Dawe portrait on at least one occasion.
He enjoyed the patronage of the Duke and Duchess of Kent and also that of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold. In 1819 he travelled with the Duke of Kent through Europe. On this tour his painting of portraits of military staff and diplomats brought him to the attention of Alexander I who commissioned him to paint the portraits of senior Russian military staff who had successfully fought Napoleon. He went to live in St Petersburg in 1819 and over the next nine years he painted over 300 portraits for the military collection.
He became a celebrity throughout Europe and mixed with the Russian intellectual elite. Among others he met and knew were Pushkin who wrote a poem about him entitled "To Dawe Esq." In 1826 Nicholas I invited him to his coronation ceremony and in 1828 he was officially appointed First Portrait Painter of the Imperial Court.
He returned to England in 1828 and stayed for several months. During this time he exhibited many of his recent works and George IV was among those to whom they were privately shown.
He returned to St Petersburg in 1829 but soon became increasingly unwell with breathing difficulties following a serious cold. He had had pulmonary weakness throughout life following childhood illness. He returned to London in August 1829 and died on 15 October at the home of his brother-in-law, Thomas Wright, a celebrated engraver. He was buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral and his funeral was attended by many artists and officials from the Russian embassy.
The significant body of work he created in Russia is currently housed in the military gallery in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Many of his paintings are also included in the British Royal Collection. Despite the international celebrity he enjoyed in his own lifetime his popularity has not endured in his home country of England, although in Russia he is still well-known and held in high regard.
- Lamb, Charles. Recollections of a late Royal Academician. The Englishman's Magazine, vol.ii, no.i, September 1831
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to George Dawe.|
- George Dawe on the website of the National Portrait Gallery
- George Dawe on the Hermitage Museum website
- George Dawe on the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa website