Balfour first made his mark as a philosopher, publishing A Defence of Philosophic Doubt in 1879. He entered politics in 1874 through the patronage of his uncle, Lord Salisbury. He succeeded Salisbury as Prime Minister in 1902 but was unable to keep together a party divided by issues of Free Trade and Protectionism. He resigned in December 1905. During the First World War, he worked as First Lord of the Admiralty and, from 1916 to 1919, as Foreign Secretary. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 gave British support to 'the establishment in Palestine of a home for the Jewish people'. Balfour continued in politics until the age of eighty: he had served for twenty-seven years as a member of the cabinet.Sargent's portrait was commissioned by subscription from members of the Carlton Club and exhibited at the 1908 Royal Academy exhibition. Showing Balfour full length, within a classicised interior, Sargent employs the full apparatus of his later, grand manner, style of portraiture. The Spectator's critic noted: 'the mastery of the whole thing is astonishing, and we ask ourselves could anyone else now place the figure so surely and convincingly before us?' Balfour is shown as a commanding and highly intelligent presence, looking directly at the viewer, but the crossed legs and right arm draped languidly along the cornice also suggest the reserved aesthete. For G. K. Chesterton, reviewing the 1908 Academy, it was 'by far the most important thing in the Exhibition', one of Sargent's 'most sagacious' portraits and a summation not just of the man but of the age. 'It is the portrait of a philosopher and a statesman – a sad philosopher and a sad statesman', Chesterton wrote: 'in its presence we feel the sober truths about the English governing class, its wide and ruinous scepticism, its remaining pillars of responsibility and reason'.
Where to see this painting?
National Portrait Gallery, London
St Martin’s Place, London, Greater London, England, WC2H 0HE
If you are planning a visit to see this painting, check with the collection first. Paintings can be moved at short notice.
Purchased through the Art Fund, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the Lord Marcus Sieff bequest, the Wolfson Foundation through the Art Fund, Lord Rothschild, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, the Headley Trust, the Linbury Trust, Sir Harry Djanogly, the Clore Duffield Foundation, the Ancaster Trust, the Sternberg Charitable Foundation and several other donations, 2002