|Michael Dahl was a pupil of Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) and favoured by Prince George of Denmark and his wife Princess Anne, but was passed over as Principal Painter to King George I on Kneller’s death because, according to a contemporary rumour, he had refused to paint a royal baby. Despite this his studio practice blossomed and he appears to have become the favoured portraitist in London at the time.
The technique of using black and white chalks on blue paper is typical of Dahl though only in more recent times has this been recognised. In 1973, the Kneller scholar J. Douglas Stewart published an article in ‘Master Drawings’ (vol. XI, pp. 34ff) arguing that certain sketches previously thought to be by Kneller were actually part of a larger group he attributed to Dahl himself. This has therefore enabled a body of work to emerge and made it possible to attribute a number of other similar studies to Dahl, including the portrait presented here.
This softly toned drawing, recently discovered, resembles a chalk on blue paper portrait by Dahl of a man traditionally called ‘Mr Reed’, (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) and another blue paper drawing by Dahl of ‘Edward Harley, Second Earl of Oxford’, (British Museum, London). The sitter presented in this portrait was previously thought to be the essayist and poet Joseph Addison but this seems unlikely as it fails to resemble the features of the writer whom Dahl rendered in oils in 1719, or indeed Kneller in 1712. A few similar drawings of gentleman exist in the Witt Collection and occasionally other examples have emerged on the art market (Christie’s London 9th June 2005, lot 8).
Both Dahl and, slightly later, Jonathan Richardson the Elder seem to have adopted from Kneller the practice of making such life-size studies of heads as an aid in painting portraits though too little is actually known of the various functions of drawings by oil portraitists in this period to be sure of purpose, unless the piece be an obvious preparation for a painting. Finely executed with a delicate touch of white chalk to highlight the essential form of the face this engaging sketch represents an interesting addition to the known works on paper by Dahl.