Goya's Portraits of the Duke of Wellington

The painting in front of us actually provides a record of the Duke's progress through a small part of his career. Between the years of 1812 and 1814 Goya would actually amend the initial work in order to display this figure's achievements on the battlefield. Goya would add the Order of the Golden Fleece and Military Gold Cross with three clasps onto this figure, recognising his recent awards. He had initially arrived in Madrid in 1812, at which point this painting would have been initiated. Goya himself already held a strong record for producing portraits of notable royal and military figures, perhaps tempting the Duke of Wellington to be included himself within a growing list of notable figures. In all, Goya would complete three different portraits of him (see also Equestrian Portrait of the 1st Duke of Wellington), and he is known to have been delighted with the finished artworks. The artist would have been well aware of the additional considerations when painting someone such as this, as they essentially represented national strength and pride, meaning the way in which they appeared on canvas should be handled with care and sensitivity.

Description of the Painting

The Duke of Wellington would have been in his early forties at the time of this painting, and perhaps is portrayed in an even more youthful appearance here than would have been the case in real life. His face, for example, is pretty much devoid of any sign of wrinkles, which is hard to imagine considering the challenging roles that he took on throughout his lifetime. He looks confidently at us, in the standard partly side-on style of portraiture. He is clean shaven and his hair simply styled but smart. The background is neutral and dark, allowing us to focus entirely on the subject, as well as providing contrast to the bright tones of his clothing. His bright red tunic is decorated with a large number of medals plus several other adornments. These bring a variety of colours to the palette that Goya would have to reproduce faithfully, and perhaps this is why he left much of the rest of the work so dark. A pink band with blue outline sweeps across his chest, and the composition cuts off just above his waist.

Theft of the Painting

Kempton Bunton, a bus driver from the North East of England, stole the painting in 1961. He would later return the piece and eventually handed himself in to authorities. The suspect was assumed to have been an experienced art thief, and so this unassuming pensioner was initially dismissed as an imposter when he first confessed to the crime several years later. Eventually, he was convicted and went to prison for three months. Elements of this unusual case would lead to amendments in British Law over the coming years. This somewhat assuming story would inspire a British film, The Duke, which was released in 2022. This would not be the first art theft to attract media attention, with the high valuations of some of these stolen paintings to be regular targets for organised crime gangs. Many of these incidents have also inspired books and feature films in a similar manner to this, but the example found here was somewhat more charming, almost humorous in how events unfolded.

The Duke Film, 2022

The film stars Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Goode and received considerable praise from critics, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, upon its release in February, 2022. The story features the court case itself, as well as the lead up to the theft, where Kempton Bunton continues to struggle financially. We also see the aftermath, where the painting is carefully hidden and then the point at which he decides to hand himself in. The identity of this 'master criminal' as an elderly man with little knowledge of the art would would make this a particularly memorable, somewhat amusing story that seemed entirely suitable for the big screen, with the screenplay being written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman and directed by Roger Michell for Warner Bros Entertainment UK.

Related Paintings at the National Gallery

This important artwork clearly has great relevance to the history of the United Kingdom, making it highly appropriate that it remains within the collection of the National Gallery in London. Visitors to this exciting venue in the centre of the city can enjoy some of the finest art from the past few centuries across Europe, with a particular focus on British artists, naturally, as well as the best from other notable regions such as France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Individual highlights to look out for include Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough, Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein. There are also regular exhibitions to be found here, drawing together specific artist's work from across the continent for a short period. The permanent collection is actually too large to display everything together, and so inevitably some items will be kept in storage or loaned out domestically or internationally from time to time in order to ensure that this publicly-owned selection of work is seen by the public as often as possible.

Large Image of the Portrait of the Duke of Wellington

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, 1812–14 in Detail Francisco de Goya