A Stately Visitor: The Portrait of Ras Makonnen: “An Abyssinian General”

COVID Creative Events, Press/Reviews, Projects / May 3, 2021

Vanity Fair’, 12 February 1903

The portrait of the remarkable statesman from Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), Ras Makonnen (1852-1906), fits in well with the series of “characteristic portraits” developed by its creator, the famous English caricaturist, Leslie Ward.

Leslie Ward aka ‘Spy’ (1851-1922), was arguably the most famous caricaturist of the Victorian era society magazine ‘Vanity Fair’.

One can identify two distinct phases of Ward’s career as portrait artist. In the early phase, Ward drew his portraits invoking the present-day connotation of a typical caricature: distorted, exaggerated depiction of peculiar body features, postures meant to ridicule and betray the vanities of various subjects.

In the later phase, Ward’s drawings made a decisive break from this style. The artist developed what he called ‘characteristic portraits’, that were not intended to offend but to draw realistic portraits of his subjects. The portrait of Ras Makonnen that was featured in a 1903 issue of ‘Vanity Fair’ is commensurate with this new style that Spy had adopted at the time.

In the portrait here, the African nobleman sits in an elegant posture. He is shown wearing a rich white silken robe and carrying a rifle placed on his lap. Ras’s skin is painted in a dark tone and looks luminous. He appears very self-confident, composed almost serene in his facial expressions. His gaze is sharp, yet not intimidating but connotes calmness. His white, silken robe, the black cloak, its golden, decorative border all contribute to giving him a distinct air of richness and elegance.

His well-trimmed beard and moustache further enhance the elegant aura that Ras exudes. The plain, white background of the portrait, although sharply contrasting with the shining black cloak, merges seamlessly with the serenity of the person in front in his immaculate and flowing white robe.

The illusion of a mysterious natural landscape is broken abruptly by the revelation of just one leg of the chair on which Ras is seated. In addition, the chequered flooring where he is seated provides a subtle but sure cue to an urban setting bringing back the scene to the ‘real world’.

Ras is holding a rifle and the rifle occupies a prominent position in the portrait. So much so that the weapon breaks the frame of the portrait and protrudes from both the edges. The prominence seems intentional to highlight Ras’s illustrious military record and his success on the battlefield. Importantly, although the rifle brings to the fore the military prowess of Ras, it is not placed in the hands of a leader poised to strike. Far from it, it reinforces the stately, self-assured demeanour of the nobleman. His long artistic fingers and shapely nails also seem to emphasise the same point.

To sum it up, Ras Makonnen’s portrait by Spy is a rather sympathetic depiction of the statesman. The portrait’s appearance in the ‘Vanity Fair’ magazine is an implicit acknowledgement of Ras’s position of privilege and his popularity in the then English high society. In an artistic way, it pays homage to Ras’s very successful trip to Europe, particularly his association with English nobility in 1902 as a powerful representative of the Abyssinian kingdom. It resembles the present-day image of a conventional portrayal of a person of the bygone era who was either a member of the aristocratic establishment in England or was held in high regard by them.
– Bhakti Deodhar.

Bhakti Deodhar

After earning her MA and MPhil in German Studies from India, Bhakti moved on to explore her passion in the Social Sciences. Following a Master’s degree in Global Studies from Germany, she worked for four years in the non-profit sector in England.

Presently, Bhakti is busy completing her PhD in Sociology from the prestigious Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, India.

Bhakti’s research interests lie in German politics, culture studies and global history. 

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