Charlotte's Richmond Portrait

No portraits were published of the Bronte Sisters in their lifetime so when Charlotte died in 1855 the general public had no idea what any of the sisters looked like.

Charlotte. 

In 1857 the first picture to be published was an engraving (above) of Charlotte, based on her portrait by George Richmond. Over the following 50 years other portraits were published but they were all based upon this engraving.

The Richmond Portrait was thought a good likeness by Charlotte, her husband, her father & Martha Brown but friends and acquaintances considered it a flattered portrait. One friend, Mary Taylor, thought that it lacked "the veritable square face and large disproportionate nose" and a self-caricature by Charlotte suggests that her nose was retrousse. Anne Thackeray Richie thought that "there was a general impression of chin about her face" 

Branwell's 'Pillar Portrait' (below-left) was discovered in 1914. Here, Charlotte does have more of a square face and straight or retrousse nose, in contrast with the oval face and aquiline nose in the Richmond Portrait.

By 1914 Charlotte's image was well established for over half a century - in the form of the Richmond Portrait. As George Richmond was a famous artist, the differences in Branwell's newly discovered portrait were put down to him being a poor artist. He may have been, but he was trying to achieve a 'true likeness' whilst George Richmond who "never consciously flattered" painted "the truth, lovingly told."

 George Richmond was interested in physiognomy, as was Charlotte and here she teases the reader describing Frances Evans Henri, a character based upon herself and her experiences in Brussels:

"You cannot tell whether her nose was aquiline or retrousse, whether her chin was long or short, her face square or oval; nor could I the first day, and it is not my intention to communicate to you at once a knowledge I myself gained by little and little." 1.

This was written in 1846, four years before she sat for the portrait by George Richmond. 


Charlotte in her portrait by Branwell Bronte c1834.


Charlotte in her portrait by George Richmond, 1850.

 

The portrait by George Richmond was commissioned by her publisher, George Smith, and was a gift to Charlotte's father. Smith may also have been interested in physiognomy as in 1851 he visited a phrenologist, with Charlotte, for a reading.

According to George Smith, when the portrait was completed Charlotte burst into tears because it was so like her late sister Anne. In Branwell's portrait of Anne (left) she has an oval face and an aquiline nose.

 

Some reactions to Charlotte's portrait are given below.

“I had rather the mouth and eyes had been nearer together, and shown the veritable square face and large disproportionate nose.” 2.

“Miss Wheelwright always thought George Richmond’s portrait—for which Charlotte sat during a stay at Dr. Wheelwright’s in Phillimore Place—entirely flattering. Many of Charlotte’s friends were pleased that it should be so, but there can be no doubt that the magnificent expanse of forehead was an exaggeration. Charlotte’s forehead was high, but very narrow." 3.

Mrs Pitt Byrne on George Richmond and Charlotte's portrait.

"No one perhaps ever succeeded in that marvellous idealisation of a sitter as George Richmond; he sets before him a man and lo! He makes him a poem, and what is more inexplicable is that rare genius of his...there is no want of truthfulness to nature.

I don't know nor do I care whether he copies the features - between ourselves I don't believe he does - but what of that? He gives you the mind, character, the inner-self of his sitter, and always with a facile grace, which while it transfigures the subject, still faithfully reproduces him...

An example of this can be seen in the pleasing portrait of Charlotte Bronte which he drew... with the bright eyes and charming expression illuminating features that would otherwise have been plain." 4.

In 1858, John Ruskin commented on his own portrait by George Richmond:

"You know I quite agree with the Daily News about the portrait. in fact, I don't consider it a portrait at all, but merely a pleasant fancy of me by George Richmond."

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 The Thompson Portrait

Charlotte in the 'Thompson Portrait' (reversed for comparison) and viewed alongside 'Charlotte' in the photo.

This portrait was created from an engraving of the 'Richmond Portrait' but the artist, John Hunter Thompson, had been a friend of Branwell Bronte, visited Haworth on several occasions. He met Charlotte at least once.

In the 'Richmond Portrait' Charlotte looks quite gaunt; Thompson has given her a fuller face.

 

More information on the Charlotte page.

 

1. Charlotte describing Frances Evans Henri in chapter 14 of The Professor (written in 1846 but unpublished; edited & published posthumously in 1857).

2. Letter from Mary Taylor to Mrs Gaskell, Wellington, 30th July 1857, Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle, Clement K. Shorter, 1896. P.22

3.Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle, Clement K. Shorter, 1896. P.294

4. Gossip of the Century; Personal and Traditional Memories--social, Literary, Artistic, &c Published in 4 Volumes by Mrs. Wm. Pitt Byrne, 1892. Quoted by Mark Bostridge in 'CHARLOTTE BRONTE AND GEORGE RICHMOND - Idealisation in the sitter' Bronte Society Transactions, Volume 17, Part 86, 1976 , pp. 58-60