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Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)

The Chamber of Genius c. 1805-10

Pen and watercolour over pencil | 22.1 x 28.1 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 913706

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A watercolour of an artist seated, working at a canvas and resting his foot on a pile of books. In the background, his female companion is still asleep in bed whilst an unguarded infant pours a drink from a bottle. A second infant sits in front of a fire, busy stoking the flames with bellows. Garments hang from a makeshift line hung across the room and a violin stands propped in the corner.

Rowlandson depicted this scene of an obsessive artist at work in a chaotic studio-cum-apartment on several occasions. The Genius is seated at the end of a makeshift bed, paintbrush in one hand and quill in the other, so focused on his painting of a shock-haired old man that he fails to notice the chamber pot that he has upset or the cat clawing his legs. To the left are objects symbolic of creative endeavour – a classical bust, books, musical instruments, a palette (bearing Hogarth’s sinuous ‘line of beauty’; cf. RCIN 811832) and an alchemical retort. Beyond him, a tricorn hat and a rapier hint at a former life of affluence; fixed to the wall are prints that in a corresponding etching of 1812 are legible as depictions of a hot-air balloon, a ballet dancer and a grotesque profile labelled ‘Peter Testa’ (cf. RCIN 402946). The artist’s indolent wife sleeps while their children pour wine and work the bellows, at risk from the hot kettle and poker.

The etching of 1812 was accompanied by a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: ‘Want is the Scorn of every wealthy Fool / And Genius in Rags is turn’d to Ridicule’ (the translation is Dryden’s, but Rowlandson substituted ‘Genius’ for ‘wit’). Rowlandson’s image is comical rather than polemical and plays on the contemporary Romantic image of the artist answering his vocation and shunning worldly concerns.

Text adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London, 2016