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Seeing Double an Engaging Visual Puzzle and Window into 1820s London Art Scene
John Scarlett Davis, The Interior of the British Institution Gallery, 1829, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- This summer, the Yale Center for British Art will present a small, fascinating exhibition that is both an engaging visual puzzle and an exploration of the art world in 1820s London.

In 1829, the young artist John Scarlett Davis sought to make a splash on the London art scene with his painting Interior of the British Institution. An image of a nineteenth-century art exhibition, the painting is also an elaborate puzzle that includes miniature works by famous British artists. Opening June 24, Seeing Double: Portraits, Copies and Exhibitions in 1820s London will offer visitors an entertaining opportunity to decode the puzzle and in the process explore the relationship between display and replication.

Long recognized as a valuable record of a period exhibition venue, Interior of the British Institution represents canvases by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, among other British masters. What is less known is that the figures that chat amiably or stoop to examine canvases are themselves replicas of paintings. Davis copied the figures from pre-existing portraits, most notably by Sir Thomas Lawrence. By examining this practice, Seeing Double will reveal previously unknown connections between works in the Center’s collection. For instance, Davis based his posthumous image of the painter Benjamin West on another work held by the Center, Lawrence’s 1810 depiction of the artist. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to compare Davis’s copy to his model. Through an important loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum, John Pasmore the Younger’s Benjamin West’s Gallery (ca. 1821), they will also be able to see how Lawrence’s portrait of West was displayed to contemporary viewers.

Seeing Double shows how connoisseurs viewed artworks in the confines of the British Institution. Twenty-first century visitors will, in turn, have an opportunity to become connoisseurs by comparing several versions of the same artwork as depicted by professional artists, gifted amateurs, and engravers. The Center’s rich collection of prints, drawings, and rare books has provided additional material to recreate the fertile nineteenth-century environment of likenesses, replicas, and reproductions. Seeing Double will also shed new light on prevailing issues of this period, including the abundance of portraits; the tension between emulation and innovation in artistic practice; and the status of the copy as a fundamental element of professional artistic training, a common practice of amateurs, and a means of perpetrating fraud in the art market.

Yale Center for British Art | John Scarlett Davis | New Haven |

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