International Nurses Day: A Portrait of Florence Nightingale

Back to News

Posted 12th May 2020

International Nurses Day: A Portrait of Florence Nightingale

Dr Stacey Clapperton, Curatorial Trainee

Let's be honest, it's not the most flattering portrait. Believed to be fiercely against her likeness being captured by both artists and photographers, few authorised portraits of 'the Lady of the Lamp' exist today.

By the time G F Watts met Florence Nightingale in the 1860s, she was already a national hero. It was her work during the Crimean War (1853-1856) that established Nightingale's reputation, when, at the request of Sidney Herbert (the British Secretary of State for War), she led a team of 38 volunteer nurses to assist at the Scutari Hospital, Turkey. Sanitation, hygiene and nutrition were all improved under Nightingale's supervision. It was here that she gained the affectionate moniker 'Lady of the Lamp', when a report in The Times described her as 'a "ministering angel" […] with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds'. [1]

In this unfinished work, Nightingale is presented in a bust-length, three-quarter profile portrait, the same format that Watts adopted for his 'Hall of Fame' series of prominent men. The face of Nightingale is well rendered, with the crimson lips puncturing an otherwise subdued colour palette. With her hair tied in a low-lying chignon, her shoulders and dress are executed in a handful of broad strokes of brown paint. Beneath the surface, a blue ground is visible which produces a cooler flesh tone in her face.

Nightingale's illness, possibly a recurring bout of typhus or brucellosis which she is known to have suffered with in later life, may have been to blame for the portrait being left unfinished. In this instance the disease, which effects patients' circulation and body temperature, resulted in her face appearing 'bloated' and giving the impression of a 'prematurely ageing nurse'. [2]

Prior to their first meeting, Nightingale admitted that she had 'a scruple against sitting' for Watts. [3] There are conflicting accounts as to why Watts was unable to finish this portrait. It is widely believed that she either refused or was unable to sit for further sessions due to her ill health.

Watts may not have succeeded in completing this portrait of Nightingale, and indeed it is an image that will not be widely circulated during the 200th anniversary of her birth this month. In this portrait, however, Nightingale is human, she is vulnerable, and she is suffering. It marks a far departure from the inspirational and stoic figurehead role that other artists cast her in. So, although it is far from flattering and it may even be uncomfortable to look at, now more than ever this portrait deserves our attention, for it is a rare and important record of the founder of modern nursing.


[1] Cited in Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, vol. I, (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1913), p.237.

[2] Victoria Franklin Gould, G.F. Watts: The Last Great Victorian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.73.

[3] Letter from Florence Nightingale to Sir H. Verney, 26 August 1864, quoted in Lynn McDonald, Florence Nightingale: an introduction to her life and family (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001), p.567.