Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


(probably) SOUTH GERMAN, CIRCA 1700

Portrait of a Gardener

oil on an octagonal oak panel

34 ½ x 31 inches          (94.5 x 79.5 cm.)


Guillermo Staudt & Martha Facio de Stoudt, Estancia La Benquerencia, San Miguel del Monte, Argentina (the house was famous for its meticulously preserved landscape and gardens)


Eighteenth century servants’ portraits in general, and most particularly this robust example, represent a departure from the standards that governed portraiture of the period. Freed from the limitations that aristocratic or fashionable likenesses imposed, artists viewed such commissions as a rare opportunity to paint the unvarnished truth. Devoid of flattery, the results proved respectful as well as sympathetic.[1]

A note of lightheartedness was often injected into these works, as they were intended to directly engage the viewer. The fact that the subject is shown smiling, as in this panel, is representative of a break from the grand tradition, and serves to make the panel more of a genre piece than a portrait. This overall impression is further reinforced by the self-deprecating gesture of the right hand, combined with the workman’s attire and straw hat. Straw hats had been worn by outside laborers since the middle ages. The sprig of flowers attached to the hat defines his role as a gardener. Although servants were routinely painted in work clothes, traditionally only hints of their particular trade were included.[2] His role as a servant is reinforced by the placement of a parapet between the sitter and viewer.

Although it might seem unusual that these portraits were commissioned at all, they served a very distinct purpose. Servants were notoriously hard to keep, and in particular gardeners were vital to an age which saw the rise of the landscape garden. The household’s gardener was expected to execute his employer’s garden designs and ideas. His work included the planting and maintenance of the flowerbeds and kitchen garden, hothouses, greenhouses, and orangeries. Often, the chief gardener headed a team of assistants. Such paintings as this were usually intended to be hung in the main communal space below stairs in the servant’s hall and were a reward for loyalty and skill. They were further intended to set an example for the rest of the staff to hopefully emulate.[3]

As The Gardener was executed circa 1700, it is among the earliest known paintings of this unique category of portraiture. As the intention was a portrayal set apart from their “betters,” the result was a complete abandonment of artifice, and instead an accurate rendering of reality.




[1] Anne French, “Stewards to scullery-maids” in Below Stairs, 400 years of servants’ portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2003, pp. 49-52.

[2] Ibid, p. 52; and Shearer West, Portraiture, Oxford History of Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p. 102.

[3] Anne French, op. cit., pp. 40-41, 54; and Anne French and Giles Waterfield, “Loyal Servants” in Below Stairs, 400 years of servants’ portraits, op. cit., p. 57.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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