Born and raised in London, George Henry Harlow entered Thomas Lawrence's studio in 1803, and began exhibiting at the Royal Academy the following year. Precocious and prodigiously productive, Harlow had great success with portraits and theatrical subjects. In 1818 he traveled to Italy, and died at thirty-one in 1819, shortly after his return to England.
Harlow was admitted to the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, in 1818, and at that time presented his self-portrait to the Galleria degli Uffizi (oil on canvas, 29 x 24 3/8 in., inscribed "G. H. Harlow / Academician of St Luke / Rome. 1818"). The present painting is not a copy of the Uffizi picture, as has been suggested (Webster 1971), but instead seems to be a preliminary study. The changes in the MMA work, apparently indicated by the artist, would be atypical for a replica or a later variant, whether by Harlow himself or another hand. There are various differences: the figured pattern of the curtain at the left is simpler, the sunset in the background is less bold, and the tassel, rope, and curtain at the right are not as highly finished. Even so, the technique, much the same in both, is that of someone working rapidly and with limited interest in finishing detail. As the two differ markedly in style from Harlow’s work as a fashionable society portraitist, it is possible that he thought of them as costume pieces. Vain and theatrical in the extreme, he once painted a small whole-length of himself as Romeo (whereabouts unknown).
There are two closely related figure drawings: a pencil study by John Jackson (National Portrait Gallery, London) and a second study in ink heightened with white (whereabouts unknown). Comparison with other Harlow self-portraits suggests that both drawings may be by Jackson. A replica in miniature was formerly in the collection of Lionel U. Grace (see Roe 1919), and the same or another is said to have been at Christie's, South Kensington, in October 1988, but cannot be traced further.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]