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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Thomas Rowlandson, British, 1756-1827

A Comic Actor Rehearsing
Ink, colored wash
Gift of Henry E. Cutler in memory of his wife, Hattie M. Cutler, and gift of the Friends of Dartmouth Library; D.955.46.2B

Thomas Rowlandson was a consummate draftsman, known for his dexterity and facility with line. Although he produced a prodigious number of watercolors, drawings, and prints throughout his long career, very little is known about the details of his life. The son of a wool and silk merchant who went bankrupt when Rowlandson was three, he was raised by his aunt, who left him her estate when she died in 1789.

Apparently he soon went through this money (thought to be about two thousand pounds)—his penchant for high living and gambling made him far from frugal—and by 1793 was living in straitened circumstances, thereafter relying on his talent to survive. In 1797 his work for Rudolph Ackermann made him somewhat prosperous, but he never reclaimed the lifestyle he briefly enjoyed in the early 1790s. Rowlandson’s artistic career began at the age of sixteen, when he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, and he exhibited his first drawing at its annual exhibition three years later. He left off exhibiting at the academy after 1787, and his subsequent work often vacillated between the picturesque, the comic, and the downright obscene. He made numerous erotic and pornographic drawings, for instance, many showing older men ogling young females and couples, a staple that undoubtedly found a steady clientele but led to the waning of his reputation in the Victorian era.

The drawings in the collection of the Hood Museum of Art amply demonstrate why Rowlandson is now recognized for his supreme virtuosity as a graphic artist. His most bravura technique is evident in A Comic Actor Rehearsing, whose Falstaffian subject is rendered with vigorous swipes of the pen. Rowlandson dated very few of his works, and the faltering signature and date on the Comic Actor, so at odds with the character of the overall work, is most probably a later addition. 

Last Updated: 1/21/10