The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia by Gilbert Stuart Newton

The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia
by Gilbert Stuart Newton (1828)

Today I am going to look at the life and one of the paintings of the Canadian born artist Gilbert Stuart Newton.  Newton was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of twelve children in 1797.  His father, Henry Newton, who originally came from Boston, worked as a Customs official and his mother Anne Stuart came from a family of Scottish descent, who also lived in Boston, Massachusetts.  Her brother, Gilbert Stuart, was an artist and was generally believed to be one of America’s leading portraitists of the time and was to become one of his nephew’s first art tutors.   Gilbert’s parents moved from Boston to the Canadian port of Halifax in 1776 but on the death of his father in 1803, when he was six years old, his mother took her family back to her home town of Charleston, a district of Boston on the Charles River.

Although initially heading for a career in commerce he developed a love of art and his uncle Gilbert Stuart recognising his artistic promise took him on as one of his pupils.  Like many aspiring artists, Newton travelled to Europe to study painting, first in Florence and later in Paris and London.  He arrived in London in 1817.  During his travels, he made the acquaintance of the American artist, Washington Allston, (see My Daily Art Display, Feb 25th 2011),  the English genre painter Charles Leslie and the Scottish painter David Wilkie.  He enrolled as a student of the Royal Academy Schools in 1817 and exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy the following year.  Initially he focused his artistic talents on portraiture and had many well known sitters, such as the American author, Washington Irving and the American politician and then American Consul in Liverpool, James Maury.  He left England in 1831 and went back to America for a short period where he married but a year later he and his wife returned to England.

Gilbert Stuart Newton is principally remembered, not for his portraiture, but for his genre and literary scenes many of which were engraved.  Probably Newton will be remembered most of all for his depiction of literary subjects such as today’s featured painting entitled The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia, taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel, The Vicar of Wakefield.  He also depicted scenes from Shakespeare such as his 1831 painting entitled Portia and Bassanio.    Another scene from a novel he painted was that of Yorick and Grisette, two characters in Lawrence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey.  This work was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1830.  In 1828 Newton was made and Associate of the Royal Academy and four years later was elected as a Royal Academician.  That same year, 1832, when he was made a Royal Academician was the also the year of the onset of his mental illness which progressively worsened to such a point that he had to be institutionalised in a private asylum in Chelsea.  Even whilst hospitalised he continued to draw, completing a number of sketches based on Shakespearian characters.   He died of consumption at the asylum in 1835 just a month before his thirty-eighth birthday.  He died alone as his wife along with their child had returned to America a few months earlier.

My featured painting today is Gilbert Newton’s work entitled The Vicar of Wakefield Reconciling his Wife to Olivia. It was painted as a commission for Lord Lansdowne.   The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1828 and in the Exhibition catalogue against this work was the following quotation from Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel, The Vicar of Wakefield.  They were the words uttered by the vicar to his wife imploring her, like him, to forgive the misdeeds of their daughter:

“…I entreat, woman, -that my words may be now marked once for all: I have here brought you back a poor deluded wanderer; her return to duty demands the revival of our tenderness … The kindness of heaven is promised to the penitent, and let ours be directed by the example…”

This novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, by Goldsmith was his most famous work of literature and in the painting we see Olivia, the vicar’s daughter, who had run away from home to be with the man she loved.  Her father, the vicar, eventually finds her and brings her home and we see him, in the right of the painting, comforting his distraught but repentant daughter, who has buried her face against his shoulder. To the left of the painting we see the vicar’s wife who has her back almost turned away from her husband and daughter and by her facial expression we must believe she hasn’t quite come to terms with what has happened.  She is now trying to balance the desire to punish her daughter for her misdeeds and yet show her some maternal love now that she is back in the fold.  Her hands are clenched tight in her lap and we can see by her facial expression that she is not in a forgiving mood.  Also included in the painting are the vicar’s two youngest sons who stand in front of their mother completely unaware of what is happening.   The younger daughter Sophia, who kneels at the side of her mother and who holds her mother’s hand in a comforting gesture, is pleading with her to forgive her errant sister, Olivia.  The vicar’s second son Moses, stands at the far right of the painting, by the open door of the house and looks somewhat bemused and unable to know what to do for the best.  The family dog lies under the table looking up aware of the commotion.

So how was the painting greeted by the art establishment in 1828?  The literary magazine of the time, The Athenaeum commented on the work:

“…A very interesting picture, cleverly composed, and well painted. The mother’s struggle between pride and tenderness, is admirably expressed, not only in her face and features, but throughout the whole figure; not more in the stiffness and erectness of carriage, than in the clenching of the hand on the knee. The patient and benevolent Dr Primrose, of Goldsmith, is finely characterised in the figure and head of the father: the affectionate sister, kneeling by her mother’s side, and anxiously interceding, is a picture of amiable loveliness; while Olivia, abandoned to shame, sorrow, and penitence, neglected in her attire, and with face averted, and concealed on her father’s shoulder, while her hand is most expressively held by his, forms, with the figure of the indulgent parent, a group replete with delightful expression. The hobbledehoy simplicity of Moses, and the panting and vague consciousness of the younger urchins, must not be overlooked; they are also most happy. The whole picture, in short, is full of truth, sentiment, and feeling…”