Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Elizabeth Johnson, c.1780 

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of Elizabeth Johnson, c.1780, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 24 ½ in (76.2 x 62 cm)
The sitter in this beautiful picture of a young woman sketching has traditionally been identified as Elizabeth Johnson (?1719 or ?1721– 1792), the third daughter of the artist’s sister Elizabeth, and thus Reynolds’ niece. This identification is apparently not documented earlier than 1852, when it was applied to a version then in the Burdett Coutts collection. However, we do know that Elizabeth Johnson posed as a model for Reynolds, which also helps explain her depiction here in a subject picture rather than a portrait. She was almost certainly the model for ‘Temperance’ in Reynolds’ masterful series of the Four Virtues [Private Collection], and the likeness accords well with the present picture.

It appears there are two versions of this picture by Reynolds. That catalogued by David Mannings as the prime version [Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, Yale University Press 2000, no.1008 p279] is untraced. It was described as ‘shockingly drawn’ by Waterhouse in 1952 [Mannings ibid, p279.] The present example is either the prime version by Reynolds, or a second version painted almost simultaneously. James Northcote RA, Reynolds’s principal assistant and amanuensis, described Reynolds’ technique of painting more than one version of his subject pictures:

“…he [Reynolds] always advised, as a good mode of study, that a painter should have two pictures in hand of precisely the same subject and design, and should work on them alternately; by which means, if chance produced a lucky hit, as it often does, then, instead of working on the same piece, and perhaps by that means destroy the beauty which chance had given, he should go to the other an improve up on that. Then return again to the first picture, which he might work upon without any fear of obliterating the excellence which chance had given it, having transposed it to the other. Thus his desire of excellence enabled him to combat with every sort of difficulty or labour.” [Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Subject Pictures (Cambridge 1995) p85]

We are grateful to Martin Postle for his suggestion that the hair, background and drapery bear all the characteristics of autograph Reynolds, and that the face may be completed by another hand, probably a studio assistant. The many pentiments in this example, indicating changes in the composition of the head, hands, book and hair, show the artist changing his mind during the painting’s completion, and are another confirmation of Reynolds’ authorship, as opposed to a studio copy completed from a finished original. This picture could possibly be identified with another untraced version sold at the Tabor sale, Christies 2 August 1928, as “A Girl Sketching (Miss Elizabeth Johnson)”.
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