This portrait study, which represents a new addition to Dahl's small oeuvre of drawings, demonstrates his great sensitivity as a draughtsman. The sitter here has not been identified, although he resembles James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde as portrayed in a studio portrait now at the National Portrait Gallery. Ormonde's jaw is more prominent, but the head study follows closely the tone and modelling of the painted face and demonstrates the closeness of drawing and painting in Dahl's practice.
Dahl came to England from Sweden in 1682, probably to exploit the opportunity left by the death of Sir Peter Lely, and he rose to become one of the leading portrait painters of the early eighteenth century. Dahl became Kneller’s great competitor and he was deeply influenced by Kneller. His practice of making large head studies from the life, such as this example, probably originated during the time that Dahl probably spent working in Kneller's studio as a new arrival in London, before he travelled to Rome with his close friend Henry Tilson in 1684; the pair, in fact, accompanied Kneller who was travelling as far as Paris in order to paint Louis XIV.
All the drawings now recognised as Dahl's work were once attributed to Kneller. In 1973 J Douglas Stewart established Dahl's distinctive hand by linking the sitters in some drawings to established paintings by Dahl; this enabled Stewart to establish further drawings by Dahl, finally making a group of sixteen drawings in all. Apart from Dahl's distinctive approach to features of the face, such as the deep shading of the edge of the mouth, the highlighting of the nose and the nostril structure, more broadly where Dahl draws with close and gentle hatchings, Kneller's head studies are looser and bolder. Kneller's study of William Congreve at the Courtauld Galleries shows his vigorous and quick drawing technique which contrasts with Dahl's cooler and more studied approach, as seen in a study of an unknown man, called William Congreve, in the same collection. The present drawing may be compared with similar head studies in the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, such as the portrait of 'Mr Reed'. Based on such comparisons, these drawings may be datable quite late in Dahl's career, to the decade 1725-35.
The appearance of this drawing is an opportunity to consider drawings that Stewart did not include in his checklist of Dahl's work but which have a claim to authorship by Dahl. Stewart omitted three portrait drawings at the British Museum that are somewhat in the style of Lely's crayon studies, believing that they 'find no parallels' among the sixteen drawings he identified as by Dahl. They may, however, represent the manner of drawing that Dahl adopted on his arrival in England. One of the three, of a young man, carries an old attribution to Dahl and is shaded with Dahl's characteristic gentle hatchings, and all three exhibit the robust sense of three dimensionality that also characterises Dahl's later drawings. If their authorship must remain a matter of conjecture, these drawings at least permit us to imagine how artists outside Lely's immediate circle responded to his crayon portraiture. Stewart also omitted a head study at the British Museum previously attributed to Richardson and now to Kneller, but with a strong claim as Dahl's work. Three head studies on the art market in recent years can also be convincingly attributed to Dahl. Perhaps most interesting among the head studies still attributed to Kneller is one at the Courtauld drawing called a portrait of William Congreve, which is very close to Dahl's study of Christopher Lethiullier in the same collection. On the verso is a powerful study of a male torso evidently drawn in an academy, whose close gentle hatchings surely mark it out as by Dahl. If so, this represents the first example of Dahl's draughtsmanship outside the genre of portraiture. Dahl was a founder director of the Great Queen Street Academy in 1711 but nothing else is known of this aspect of his work. Dahl's drawing would not have been limited to portrait heads; for example, the final lot of drawings in the sale of Friderich Christian Zincke’s collection in 1749 was 'A parcel of hands, by Dahl &c.'
Although the practice of making large head studies has come to be most closely identified with Kneller, arguably it was Dahl's adoption of this mode of working that had a greater impact. While Kneller ran a busy studio with many assistants, no portraitist of stature was nurtured there who later thrived as an independent portrait painter. By contrast, the Swede Hans Hysing lived with Dahl as a pupil 'many years' and painted 'much in Mr.Dahls latter manner.' Hysing, suggested Stewart, passed on the technique of making large head studies to Allan Ramsay, who was Hysing's student in 1734.
Dahl died aged ninety and outlived his reputation. He appears frequently during his final years in the diary of his close friend Robert Lee of Binfield, such as in an entry on 21 April 1736 when Binfield took a walk to Chelsea with Dahl and William Hogarth. On Dahl's death, the Earl of Egmont recorded the anecdote in his diary that the painter 'had the mortification to be told that in the sale of the Earl of Oxford's pictures (he died about 2 years ago), that a picture of his was sold for 39 shillings, for which the Earl had paid 30 guineas, which greatly discomposed him, as may well be thought.' Dahl was a long-time member of London's leading club for art connoisseurs, the Virtuosi of St Luke; however with Dahl's death, the club disbanded. Dahl's collection of prints and drawings was sold by Christopher Cock on 18 January 1744, but the catalogue does not survive.
- National Portrait Gallery, London, museum no.NPG78, circa 1713.
- J. Douglas Stewart, 'Some Portrait Drawings by Michael Dahl and Sir James Thornhill', in Master Drawings, vol 11 no 1, Spring 1973, pp.34-45, 86-102.
- Courtauld Institute, museum nos.D.1952.RW.1399 and C.1952.RW.3549.
- British Museum, museum no.1914,0615.1; the other two are museum nos Oo,10.178 and 1906,0719.2.
- British Museum, museum no.1870,1008.2383.
- Christie's South Kensington, 18 July 2012 lot 792.
- A Catalogue of the Curious and Entire Collection of... Mr Christian Frederick Zincke (1749), lot 76 on the 5th night, 4 February 1749.
- Vertue, vol.III, p.11.
- Ed Harry Leonard, Diaries and Correspondence of Robert Lee of Binfield 1736-1744, Berkshire Record Society, 2012, p.15.
- Ed. R.A. Roberts, Royal Manuscripts Commission, Report on the Manuscripts of the Earl of Egmont, London, 1920-3,vol 3, p.275.
- Daily Advertiser, 12 January 1744.