Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Pose study for a portrait ''Lady Compton'' 1781 1781

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Pose study for a portrait ''Lady Compton'' 1781, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
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Black chalk on paper
18th Century
9 x 4 inches 22.8 x 11.4 cm
 
Provenance:
Private Collection, London
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Pose studies such as this are rare survivals, and probably represent the conclusion of the sitter''s discussions with the painter over the appearance of their portrait. The full-length format is a particular test of an artist''s virtuosity, and it is no surprise that the majority of compositional sketches that survive show the portraitist resolving the problems entailed by working on this scale.

This present sketch is a study for Reynolds''s 1781 portrait of Lady Elizabeth Compton (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Mellon Collection), the daughter of the Marquess of Northampton. Her first appointment with Reynolds was in December 1780, which, as Mannings remarks1, may have been to make arrangements for sittings, since artist and patron did not meet again until May of the next year. It seems probable, therefore, that this drawing would either have been shown by Reynolds to his client as a possibility for her portrait, or that it would have been produced by Reynolds shortly after their meeting as a mutually agreed solution.

The drawing can be distinguished from a record of a completed painting by the fact that it concentrates solely on the attitude of the subject. Although the appearance of costume and background are superficially the same as in the Washington painting, the conformity is very loose: the low-hanging trees with which Reynolds frames his subject in the painting have not yet occurred to him as a compositional device, nor has the pendant around the sitter''s neck attained its final emphatic form.

The particular delight of this sketch lies in the opportunity to see the mind of Reynolds at work. Few of his drawings are extant -indeed, drawing is a skill that he is unfairly accused of lacking- and from the freedom and inventiveness of this example this appears to be a great loss. It displays a looseness and confidence more traditionally associated with the drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, whilst the carefully balanced pose promises all of the harmony and elegance which made Reynolds such a prodigiously successful painter of women.

1.David Mannings Sir Joshua Reynolds A Complete Catalogue of his Work Yale 2000. Text volume p.141
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