This portrait of the political writer Thomas Paine probably dates from around 1791, just after the publication of The Rights of Man, his most challenging and popular work. It shows a man who had made a name for himself through championing the spirit of revolution. Although he spent his early life in England, Paine emigrated to America in 1774, arriving at a time of unprecedented political fragility. Within a year of his arrival, armed conflict had broken out between colonists and British troops and by December 1775, the colonists had begun actively to challenge the right to rule of the British government. As editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine wrote articles on the injustices of colonial policy. Encouraged to develop these into a more substantial argument for independence, he published the provocatively-titled Common Sense in late 1775. It argued that monarchy was 'a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against', and proposed a self-governing America. It was an instant bestseller, and although it sparked reactionary pamphlets, its main result was to fuel the revolutionary fervor. On 4 July 1776, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, and an emancipated America was born.
Throughout the War of Independence, Paine promoted the revolutionary cause, urging the Americans to rally against the force of tyranny. His emotive language articulated the anxieties and hopes of the new country. After the war, however, his self-appointed role as political orator was no longer as crucial, and he retired to the country, where he became absorbed in scientific experiments. Eventually, feeling betrayed by local lack of interest in his work, he decided to return to England and try his fortunes there. He arrived in May 1787, but was soon distracted from his scientific interests by more momentous events elsewhere. As monarchy in France crumbled, Paine (who remained in England) corresponded with Lafayette's circle. He was considered trustworthy enough to be given the key to the Bastille, which was to be taken to America as a sign of a shared desire for liberty.
In 1790, Edmund Burke published his heavily critical Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine's response, in February 1791, was The Rights of Man, a sophisticated and powerful defence of revolution, which has become one of the most famous political texts of the era. His key argument was that no government, parliament or institution can impose itself eternally upon a people; each generation has the right to question and challenge its form of government, and to change it if it is found wanting. Where Burke presented the English constitution as a sovereign act of the people, Paine contended that it was merely the result of a series of forced conquests and suppressions. For Paine, the French constitution was more directly a creation of the people than the British constitution could ever be. These original and passionate arguments made The Rights of Man immensely popular: in three months, 50,000 copies were circulating. However, in 1792 the mood changed. Publication of a new, expanded edition of The Rights of Man inspired the formation of radical working-men's clubs, which challenged the established order in England. Paine, blamed for the resulting unrest, was burned in effigy.
Paine probably met Laurent Dabos on his return to Paris in 1791, after the success of The Rights of Man. This picture is stylistically similar to a portrait that Dabos painted of Mirabeau in 1791 (now in the Musée Carnavalet). Paine's self-importance at this time was noted by his friends, and it is likely that his literary success would have made him more than happy to sit for a commemorative portrait. He is shown in a room furnished in the French style, holding a piece of paper which may be a letter, or possibly a leaf of The Rights of Man. A bundle of papers, perhaps a manuscript of the book, lies beside him on the ebony Louis XVI bureau-plat. A description of Paine written by a friend, Thomas Rickman, fits this portrait perfectly: his eyes were 'singularly piercing' and he 'wore his hair cued with side curls and powdered and looked altogether like a gentleman of the old French school.' This portrait is a rare contemporary image of Paine at the height of his success. It is one of only two oil paintings of him from the years 1788-1803: the other was by Romney, but is now lost (known only through an engraving of 1793).
This picture entered the collection of Alfred Morrison, M.P. (1821-1897), during the nineteenth century. The second son of James Morrison, M.P. (d.1857), a distinguished connoisseur, Alfred Morrison formed notable collections of autographs and historical portraits.