Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Virgin and Child 1770s

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Virgin and Child, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
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Oil on Panel
18th Century
36 x 28 inches, 91.5 x 71 cm
 
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Although Joshua Reynolds is best known for his portraiture, it is in his subject, or ‘fancy’ pictures that he felt most at ease. Today, we often forget just how popular ‘subject pictures’ were in the eighteenth century, both among the public, and especially artists themselves, for whom portraiture was occasionally a sordid boon. It may have paid well (or at least paid) but the practice of painting face after face could be stiflingly repetitive. George Romney, for example, took refuge in Emma Hamilton, while Thomas Gainsborough removed himself to imagined landscape paintings, usually painted at night by candlelight. John Opie summed up many artists’ frustration when he observed that “so habituated are the people of this country to the sight of portraiture only, that they can scarcely as yet consider painting in any other light… one’s very soul is sick with hearing… the same dull and tasteless question; ‘Who is that?’ and ‘Is it like?’” [Martin Postle, ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Subject Pictures’ (Cambridge 1995), p5]

Reynolds too, despite being the foremost portraitist of his age, was often forced to take refuge from the demands of portraiture, and focused instead on subject pictures (he painted very few landscapes). Works such as ‘The Strawberry Girl’ [Wallace Collection, with another version at Bowood House] and ‘Nymph and Cupid’ [Tate] were hailed as masterpieces during Reynolds’ own lifetime. He particularly focused on subject pictures in the later years of life, after problems with his eyesight forced him to abandon portraiture.

In stark contrast to his portraits, which could be completed in a matter of hours, Reynolds’ subject pictures occupied him for weeks and even months. Without the constraints of a portrait commission, or the inescapable distractions of a paying sitter, Reynolds could concentrate on the study of character and composition, and experiment with new techniques. As his pupil James Northcote later noted, ‘So desirous was Sir Joshua to arrive at excellence, that I have known him work days and weeks on his fancy subjects, on which he could practise every experiment at pleasure , while numbers of his portraits remained unfinished…’ [James Northcote ‘The Life of Joshua Reynolds’ (London 1818) Vol 2 p.23]
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