Lord Rivers, a rich aristocratic Londoner and friend of the Prince of Wales, had known Agasse in Geneva in 1790. Lord Rivers, who was born George Pitt and eventually succeeded to his father’s title of Baron Rivers, would prove to be a key element in the artist’s career, notably in Agasse’s decision to settle in London and the success he encountered there. The earliest and chief protector of the artist, Lord Rivers supported Agasse and introduced him to wealthy patrons. Agasse would eventually paint the lord’s portrait five separate times, three versions of which depict him at the Newmarket races – one of these three is hanging in the Musée d’art et d’histoire of Genève.
The version conserved in the Collection Pictet is the largest of the three and in all likelihood dates from 1835. Reflecting Lord Rivers’ enthusiasm for coursing and traditional hunting on horseback, this is one of the artist’s most renowned paintings. At the centre of a grandiose composition, Lord Rivers is seated on horseback, his left hand shielding his eyes from the glare of the bright sun in a noble and elegant attitude, whilst his gaze is turned toward the distance to better emphasize his visionary spirit and underscore the aloof pose. The rider dominates the entire scene, which is bathed in a bright light. Alongside Lord Rivers, we see a page and two greyhounds, one of which was a competition champion – Lord Rivers also bred horses and dogs, and was an avid racing enthusiast. Behind him are two of his friends, also depicted seated on their mounts.
A heath, its grassy plain dotted with sheep, serves as a background to the scene, which stretches to the refined haze of a sky we glimpse just behind the veil of the cloudy atmosphere. The depiction of the different animals allowed Agasse to show off his talents as an animal painter, for indeed the genre was where he excelled at rendering the slightest details of their poses and the movements of their muscles, along with the silky sheen of their coats.
The painstaking attention to these elements, the structured, perfectly mastered composition, the sure technique, precise drawing and harmony of the whole make this canvas one of the most remarkable examples of Agasse’s painting.