Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Infant Moses in the bulrushes 1770s/80s

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

The Infant Moses in the bulrushes, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
28 x 36 inches 69.8 x 90.2 cm
Greenwood’s 16th April 1796(lot61) to the Duke of Leeds 125 gns; By descent; Duke of Leeds sale Sotheby’s 14th June 1961 (lot13) bt Taishoff; Private Collection USA to 2004.
Graves and Cronin Reynolds iii p 1175 David Mannings and Martin Postle Sir Joshua Reynolds A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings 2000 p.542 no.2099 Martin Postle in Lawrence Steigrad Portraits and other recent acquisitions Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts catalogue 2004 cat. no 20
Grosvenor Gallery 1884
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This painting is superb, painterly proof that Reynolds had lost none of his powers either of execution or invention – the ‘variety’ that his rival Gainsborough ruefully cursed. As with a number of paintings of this later date – Cupid and Pysche (Private Collection) for example – the painter treats the subject in a manner deeply indebted to the Italian renaissance masters. Significantly when Reynolds hung this painting in the gallery of his house in Leicester Square it would have been placed alongside examples from his old master collection, as a statement that the best modern art could be their equal.

Martin Postle1 draws attention to the fact that when painting fancy pictures such as The Infant Moses, Reynolds worked wholly without the assistance of his studio, who collaborated extensively on portrait commissions at this date. These works were painted by the artist very largely for his own satisfaction, and although some were sold, others were retained by Reynolds and hung in his picture gallery alongside examples from his old master collection. In its subject and execution, The Infant Moses is one of the supreme examples of Reynolds’s attempt to elevate modern British painting to the heights – both in subject and in execution – of the Italian masters he so admired. Contemporary connoisseurs recognised the significance of these works, and it is a remarkable fact that when it appeared in the artist’s posthumous studio sale in 1796, The Infant Moses sold for 125 guineas, more even than The Portrait of Omai, currently Reynolds’s most expensive painting, which sold for 100 guineas.

The highly worked surface of the painting shows the artist’s meticulous care in achieving his effect, and is a world away from the more swiftly worked portraits of the same period. The rich, Rubensian colour reveals Reynolds’s growing interest in that painter from c.1780 onwards, and further attests to the significance of works such as The Infant Moses as the arena in which the painter could explore concerns of subject and technique of importance to him away from the more immediate dictates of his commercial practice. His pupil James Northcote stresses this aspect of Reynolds’s work, when he remarks:

‘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…’2

1. Martin Postle in Portraits and other recent acquisitions Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts catalogue 2004
2. Postle in Steigrad op. cit. quoting James Northcote The Life of Joshua Reynolds London 1818 Vol 2 p.23
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