Sir Henry Raeburn RA, Boy and Rabbit, c.1814

Object of the Month - October 2017


Sir Henry Raeburn RA, Boy and Rabbit, c.1814

Sir Henry Raeburn RA has sensitively captured his 'favourite grandson' Henry Raeburn Inglis, who was in fact his step-grandson and godson. The close relationship of artist and sitter is represented in the relaxed pose and clothing that hangs casually showing the boy's youthful chest. The composition brings the boy close to the viewer, reinforcing the familiarity of the painting. These details indicate that it was painted as a personal family painting, rather than a commissioned portrait. The painting is executed with loose brushwork, a minimal palette and intense chiaroscuro highlighting the boy's face, arms and the rabbit.

Unlike more formal genre paintings, where animals would have been allegorical, the rabbit here is presented as a domestic pet. The child holds his rabbit tenderly, poised to feed it dandelion leaves from his other hand. The trusting look on the boy's face is all the more poignant when we realise he was deaf due to illness at a young age, which meant he was unable to speak. This also explains the importance of the sense of touch within the painting. He followed the path of his grandfather, becoming an artist himself and studied at the Trustees Academy School of Art in Edinburgh.

Sir Henry Raeburn RA lived and worked in Edinburgh and was the leading Scottish painter of his day, serving as Portrait Painter to King George IV in Scotland. Although he was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London before he was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy, he felt alienated from the art scene in London. Raeburn gave Boy and Rabbit to the Royal Academy as his Diploma Work, which every artist is required to give upon their election. He first offered a self-portrait (now in the National Galleries of Scotland) but it was refused, as at that time self-portraits were not permitted as Diploma Works.

Boy and Rabbit has recently gone on loan to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow until June 2018. Kelvingrove worked with their D/deaf guides to produce the interpretation for the display, which read 'looking after an animal can help people feel calm. There are no communication barriers with animals, and so close friendships can be formed'.