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image icon 'Barnett Levey', c1826

'Barnett Levey', c1826
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This is a portrait in oils on canvas made around 1826 by Augustus Earle (1793-1839), which measures 69.0 cm x 53.5 cm. It shows a fashionably dressed man seated with hands clasped, looking away from the viewer. His eyes are wide open and alert and his set lips convey a sense of earnest concentration. He is wearing a dark-blue coat with brass buttons, matching trousers and a cream waistcoat with an elaborate cravat. His matching shirt has a stiff collar pointing out and up, close beneath the chin. A fob watch is visible near his hands.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a colonial portrait painting - portraiture was the primary economic mainstay for many artists in early colonial Australia; in contrast to landscape painting, portraiture dominated the style of art made between the 1830s and the mid-1850s in the older colonies of New South Wales and Victoria
  • was painted by Augustus Earle (1793-1838) - Earle was an adventurous world traveller, colonial painter and lithographer who spent several years in the colony of New South Wales during 1825-28 painting portraits (including full-length portraits), landscapes in oils and local genre subjects in watercolour, which included portraits and figure studies of Aboriginal people; his relatively brief time in the colony was productive and groundbreaking; his watercolour landscapes and genre scenes often incorporated personal insights and touches of humour, which distinguishes them from conventional illustrations and views made by other artists at the time
  • is one of a large number of commissioned portraits undertaken by Earle - these commissions included a life-size portrait of the retiring governor Sir Thomas Brisbane (made 1825-26), along with portraits of the Colonial Secretary Major Frederick Goulburn (made 1825-26), and other artistic identities such as the Tasmanian surveyor and visual artist George William Evans (made 1825), and Earle’s student, the Sydney artist Frederick Garling (made 1826); his best-known portraits include a full-length standing figure of the Naval Officer of Port Jackson Captain John Piper, made in about 1826, and a related family group of Mrs John Piper with Thomas, Eliza, Anne and William Piper, also made in 1826
  • depicts Barnett Levey (1798-1837), a prominent Sydney merchant and arts identity who was the first free Jewish settler in the colony of New South Wales - an actor and founder of the Australian theatre, Levey arrived in Sydney in 1821 and by 1825 had established himself as a merchant; in the same year he married Sarah Emma Wilson, the step-daughter of Jacob Josephson, Australia’s first silversmith; Levey had a passion for the dramatic arts and in 1833 established a permanent theatre at the rear of his Royal Hotel, the Theatre Royal, which was the first purpose-built theatre in Australia; it closed in 1838 and was destroyed by fire in 1840
  • is one of an extremely rare pair of portraits of the period - the matching portrait is of Barnett Levey’s wife, Sarah, titled ‘Mrs Barnett Levey’, painted in about 1826; these portraits were intended to be hung side by side, with the one of Sarah being placed on the left so that her gaze would be directed towards her new husband (they were married in the year these portraits were made)
  • is a painting that is set within a rare frame - while earlier colonial timber frames are known to exist, the frame for this painting, along with its pair, is possibly the earliest known example of the use of frame mouldings; the decorative mouldings in each corner are made from gesso, which is a form of plaster that has been fixed to the timber frame
  • provides social and personal insights - Barnett Levey is shown wearing fashionable Regency attire; this period (later 18th century) was marked by fashionable gentlemen dressing to present ‘an air of studied carelessness’ through dramatic contrast; this contrast is seen here in Levey’s navy coat, which is set against a cream-coloured neckcloth, waistcoat and breeches; his fob watch completes his appearance as a well-dressed 1820s Sydney gentleman; it has been suggested that the clasp of his hands in his lap, the slight forward positioning of the head and the gentle but penetrating eyes are indicative of his flamboyant personality.