For Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, that would hardly be an exaggeration. Burnaby, the subject of this painting by portraitist James Tissot, was the real-life version of the great swashbuckling adventurer. He made a pioneering journey on horseback across Central Asia—in winter and essentially alone—meeting up with the murderous Khan of Kiva and finding him a “cheery sort of fellow.” He took a similarly wild trip across Asia Minor and raced off to join deadly British military campaigns in Sudan—without obtaining leave from his then-current military post. He was a hot-blooded hot-air balloon enthusiast, becoming the first man to make the journey across the English Channel. And he was a heroic (though somewhat independent-minded) soldier, regarded as the strongest man in the British Army. Needless to say, he was quite the celebrity of the late 19th century. His tales of his exotic expeditions enthralled audiences whether recounted in person in a salon or wittily written in books. In fact, his best-selling A Ride to Kiva won him both kudos from Henry James and a dinner invitation from Queen Victoria. Oh, and did we mention he spoke seven languages?
Tissot captures the legendary daredevil in a casual yet slightly swaggering pose. Burnaby wears the debonair “at-ease” version of his Royal Horse Guards captain’s uniform, the red stripe down his pant leg calling attention to the impressive length of his 6 foot, 4 inch frame. The more formal military accoutrements—the parade helmet, full-dress tunic, and cuirass—rest nearby, while a map of Asia and Africa behind him and stacks of books at his side allude to his famous exploits. Together the pose, the uniform, the symbolic props all infuse the somewhat feminine salon setting with a good whiff of manly bravado, creating a portrait that seems to ooze the captain’s virile charm.
After all, who doesn’t love a man in uniform? Well, it turns out the Impressionists, that’s who. Depictions of military men are rare among the works of the Impressionists. Military service didn’t become universal until 1872, so uniformed soldiers weren’t part of the urban landscape, and they just didn’t fit into the Impressionists’ goal of capturing modern everyday life. Tissot, on the other hand, painted many gallant officers parading in their uniforms and holding court in salons. And really we can’t blame him. Burnaby might not be so of the moment fashion-wise, but he was certainly of the moment in terms of celebrity—and well, he does cut a fine figure.
—Lauren S., Associate Director of Communications
James Tissot. Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1870. National Portrait Gallery, London.