Text by Deanna MacDonald
Share this painting:
Though Reynolds portrays him as the consummate military leader, John Burgoyne (1722–92) has the misfortune to be primarily remembered as the British commander who surrendered to American forces in 1777 at Saratoga, a loss many consider the turning point of the American Revolution. But Burgoyne was a multifaceted character; a Member of Parliament as well as an actor, playwright, dandy and gambler, he was known in his day as Gentleman Johnny. His life story reads like a romantic novel.
At 21, he eloped with his best friend’s sister. Her father, Lord Strange, gave her a modest dowry and cut her off. Deep in debt, the couple left for the continent where Burgoyne learned of the European ‘light dragoons’,– versatile, all-purpose mounted troops then unknown in England. He later submitted a plan to create such a force and in 1759 founded the 16th Light Dragoons. He went on to build an illustrious career, making his name in the Portuguese campaign of 1762.
It was most likely Burgoyne’s senior officer, Count La Lippe, who commissioned this portrait as a memento of their victory in Portugal. Reynolds’ ledger for May 1766 notes a sitting by a General Burgoyne and so this picture is believed to date from that year; moreover, Burgoyne’s uniform is that of the 16th Light Dragoons as it was worn until that month.
Reynolds, known for his keen sense of what pose or gesture was appropriate for his sitter, were they society ladies, kings or soldiers, depicts Burgoyne as the ultimate 18th-century English hero. He cuts a dashing figure silhouetted before a tumultuous sky and battlefield, a composition that would become a classic type of Romantic portraiture. With cool command, Burgoyne looks imperiously off into the distance to what can only be a glorious future. His stance, one arm akimbo and the other on his sword, is inspired by a tradition of male military portraits dating from the Italian Renaissance.
Reynolds would have acquainted himself with such works during a sojourn in Italy from 1749–52. Returning to London, he became the most celebrated portraitist of his day. A literary type (as compared to his more intuitive rival Gainsborough who reportedly ‘detested to read’), his friends included Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Angelica Kaufmann, Dr Johnson and James Boswell, who dedicated his Life of Johnson to Reynolds. A great networker, he was never short of clients: in 1759 alone, he recorded over 150 sitters. Unsurprisingly, he often used workshop assistants to help complete drapery and backgrounds. His portraits from the 1760s, such as this one, have an especially imaginative flair without ever forgetting the sitter’s need for a fashionable and flattering likeness. Just two years after this portrait he was elected as the first President of the Royal Academy and would become an influential theorist and teacher as well as principal painter to King George III.
Burgoyne’s future however would be a bit bumpier. Elected to parliament in 1761, promoted to major-general in 1772, he also began a literary career and had considerable success with a play, Maid of the Oaks, staged in London by David Garrick in 1775. But then, in 1776, the American Revolution erupted, the same year his wife died. Burgoyne was first sent to Boston and later, in September 1777, he led a disastrous attack from Quebec into upstate New York and ended up surrendering at Saratoga. Ridiculed for his questionable leadership and pomposity, his military and political career floundered. He found some success in his last years writing comic operas and plays and had four illegitimate children with his mistress, opera singer Susan Caufield.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1764–5 Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Le petit parc, London, Wallace Collection
1766 George Stubbs: Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art