Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Catherine Maria (Kitty) Fisher (1741? - 1767) holding a small dog, wearing a green dress, with a pink drape and ribbons in her hair 

Luke Sullivan (c.1725-71)

Portrait miniature of Catherine Maria (Kitty) Fisher (1741? - 1767) holding a small dog, wearing a green dress, with a pink drape and ribbons in her hair, Luke Sullivan
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Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 2 1/2 in (6.3 cm) high
 
Provenance:
Sotheby’s, London 1975, lot 44 (‘a young lady called Kitty Fisher…after Reynolds’) Sotheby’s, London 2008, lot 11 Private Collection
Literature:
Foskett 1979/1989 p.174, pl. 40H
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When this portrait was sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 after a thirty-three year absence from the market the border of the original frame had been replaced. Research into the catalogue of the auction sale in 1975 shows that this border had been inscribed, leading to the credible identification of the sitter as Kitty Fisher. Frustratingly, the early provenance for this miniature is untraced, but the expensive original frame backing suggests that it might have been commissioned by one of her wealthy admirers as she was still unmarried in 1763.

Luke Sullivan would have been a perfect choice to paint the young Kitty, who by 1763 had already enjoyed many years of fame as London’s foremost courtesan. Sullivan is described in numerous contemporary accounts as something of a bon-viveur. Joseph Strutt, writing in 1786, stated ‘being much addicted to women, his chief practice lay among the girls of the town’ (Strutt, 347). There is little doubt that Sullivan was well acquainted with Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and that both men would have met regularly at the Society of Artists.

Sullivan probably became personally acquainted with Kitty Fisher through Reynolds and this portrait of her would appear to be partially based on an erotic sketch of her as Danaë executed by Reynolds [Berlin, Gemäldegalerie]. In this sketch a small dog, possibly the same dog she is seen holding here, is perched at the end of her couch.

Fisher’s early life is obscure, but she seems to have been introduced into public life by Ensign Anthony George Martin. Whilst one of many such courtesans to achieve public recognition in 18th Century England, she stands alone in the sheer magnitude of her celebrity. Aided by numerous prints after oil portraits her face was made famous, whilst her daily activities were recorded faithfully by newspapers.

Kitty’s extravagant lifestyle was legendary (she is said to have eaten a £100 bank note on buttered bread) and funded by her numerous wealthy lovers. The present portrait of her shows none of the trappings of wealth, as aside from her fine dress she wears no jewels. This private image is quite different to her public image, showing her simply but elegantly dressed, relaxing in a natural setting. Perhaps significantly, the Phalene (or toy spaniel) dog who sits on her lap, growling at those who look at the miniature, was the breed of dog favoured by Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. Pompadour was painted with her dog in a 1759 portrait by François Boucher [Wallace Collection, London].

In 1766 Kitty was married to John Norris (1740–1811), MP for Rye. Her untimely death, just four months after their marriage, left her husband devastated.
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