POPE, ALEXANDER (1688-1744)
PORTRAIT AFTER SIR GODFREY KNELLER (1646-1723), oil on canvas, head and shoulders in a roundel, in profile facing left, framed, size of image 30 x 25 inches (76 x 64 cm), [c. 1721]
Pope was 'the most painted personality of his time, other than royalty', sixty-six originals being recorded. Profile portraits, while normal in medals, were then relatively rare in paintings. Pope had responded to Addison's Dialogues on Medals with a complimentary poem and a plea that British artists should celebrate her heroes in medallic form 'emulous of Greek and Roman Fame.' The image of the togaed laureate is set within the antique symbol of eternity, the uroboros, the serpent biting its own tail, possibly a reference to Pope's own biting satire. He is also shown wearing ivy though in the Essay on Criticism he had distinguished between 'The Poet's Bays and Critick's Ivy' (Piper).
It has been suggested that the portraits of Pope of this type derive from portraits of Alexander the Great, specifically the ancient 'medal' (that is, coin) of the deified Alexander. In The Temple of Fame, written perhaps two or three years before the epistle To Mr Addison, Occasioned by this Dialogue on Medals, Pope described Alexander the Great in verse, and in his gloss, mentioned the coins bearing Alexander's image. Moreover, in 1711, Pope had received a letter from John Caryll comparing him directly to Alexander the Great, to which Pope wrote in reply: 'Tis certain the greatest magnifying glasses in the world are a man's own eyes, when they look upon his own person, yet even in those, I appear not the Great Alexander Mr Caryll is so civil to, but like little Alexander the women laugh at. But if I must be like Alexander, 'tis in being complimented into too good an opinion of my self: they made him think he was the son of Jupiter, and you persuade me I am a man of parts.' Stewart concluded: 'It seems not unlikely that Pope may have asked Kneller to portray him in the manner of "Alexander Ammon", a provocative imitation of the medal.'
Pope wrote to Kneller about his earlier portrait of him, of which there are more contemporary copies than of the 1721 portrait: 'Dryden says he has seen a Fool think, in your picture of him. And I have reason to say I have seen the least of mankind appear one of the greatest under your hands. I really believe (from the conviction I have how much better you make things than Nature herself) than even a Man in love would think his Mistress improved by you. For you are the only one in the world, whom the jealous lover would beg to "Touch his Mistress"' (Correspondence).
REFERENCES: J. Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1971; J. Riley and W.K. Wimsatt 'A Supplement to The Portraits of Alexander Pope' in Evidence in Literary Scholarship, Essays in Memory of James Marshall Osborn, edited by R. Wellek and A. Ribero, 1979; The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, edited by George Sherburn, 5 volumes, 1956; David Piper, The Image of the Poet, 1982.