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Sir Joshua Reynolds - Portraits Of Fair Women



By Francis Hamilton

( Article orginally published October 1945 )

The French and English schools of painting have afforded us many examples of portraits of fair women. Some of the best known of these are of the eighteenth century but there were charming subjects produced in the first half of the nineteenth century which in their grace and distinction rivaled those of the preceding era.

One of the most famous painters of England, Sir Joshua Reynolds, is seen here in the extremely beautiful Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Compton, as rendered in mezzotint by Valentine Green. It added greatly to the reputation of the English portrait painters of the late eighteenth century that so many of their finest portraits of members of nobility were engraved. The originals hung in castles and mansions accessible only to the privileged few. The engravings of Valentine Green, J. R. Smith and others of their period extended the reputations of Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney, who were the three leading portrait painters in England in the late eighteenth century. Reynolds, who became president of the Royal Academy, and whose ideas on art, embodied in his famous Discourses, believed ardently in the cult of the picturesque. He liked to give his figures stately settings of landscapes and architecture, which enhanced the personality of the subject. He was not so much interested in character and mood as Gainsborough was, but in painting a pretty woman, as he did when Lady Elizabeth Compton was his subject, he excels in embodying an ideal feminine beauty.

Reynolds was born in Devonshire in 1723, and studied for a short time under Hudson. He early made the acquaintance of Lord Edgcumbe who intro(]need him to Keppel, commander of the Mediterranean squadron. Keppel invited him to go to Italy where he studied the old masters but confessed he was disappointed in them. After two years in Rome. he returned to London where his studio in Leicester Square was thronged with people of fashion. He was the friend of Dr. Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick and Sterne. Reynolds looked at his subjects with a detached air. Mrs. Thrale, the friend of Dr. Johnson, said that he had a "heart too frigid" and a "pencil too warm." Hence, it was easy for him to adopt a "certain idealistic manner, especially in painting; portraits of women, but there is something about the present subject which makes us feel that he has not exaggerated her charm.

Fragonard's Portrait of Rosalze Fragonard in Savoyarde costume, is a typical French subject painted about the same time as Reynolds' portrait. It is vivacious and has the spontaneity of a sketch, and the fact that it is painted in gouache rather than oil contributes to this effect. Fragonard, who was the son of a merchant in Grasee, and had studied under Chardin and Bouc;her, had risen to the very height of favor in Paris after 1761, when he returned to Paris from Rome. He became an Academician in that year and had his studio in the Louvre. He was famous for his decorative paintings, which he executed for the private mansions of the nobility and particularly for the financier, Bergeret de Graneourt. He was immensely popular with the ladies and had a love affair with the dancer, La Guimard. She is probably the model in the series of beautiful decorations which are now in the Frick collection in New York. In 1769 he married Marie-Ann Gerard, who was the daughter of a family of perfumers in Grasse. Bergeret de Grancourt took the artist and his wife on a tour to Italy in 1773 and when he returned to Paris he had his studio at the Louvre. This was the period of many of his best genre pictures and he was so popular that he was able to sell his work from his own studio instead of depending on what was exhibited at the Salon. At the time of the Revolution he was obliged to fly to Grasse, and although he had made a considerable fortune, his later years were spent in poverty. In 1806, the year in which Napoleon turned all of the artists out of the Louvre, he suddenly died.

A particularly charming English subject of the early nineteenth century is illustrated here in a Portrait of An Unknown Lady by Sir William Beechey, exhibited by the Hammond Galleries. The cosutme is of Empire style, with high-waisted dress and short, puffed sleeves. This type of dress first began to be worn in Paris and in London in the very late eighteenth century, but, the style, as seen here, was typical of the period from 1800 to 1810. A little later the puffed sleeve became much fuller and by 1825 was enormous.

Sir William Beechey was born in 1753 at Burford in Oxfordshire. It was originally intended that he should follow the legal profession but his friendship with some artists made him wish to be a painter. He seems to have made his way easily and early attracted the notice of George III. As portrait painter to Queen Charlotte, he was often at Windsor Castle and was the teacher of the young princesses, Amelia and Charlotte, who were very fond of him. In 1798 he painted his famous picture, A Review of the Horse Guards, which included portraits of the King, the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of York. This was so satisfying to the Royal Family that he was knighted. For a while he did fancy subjects showing his daughter as the Goddess Hebe, and Lady Georgina Bathurst as Adoration. He gave this up, however, and restricted his work to straight portraiture. Among his best works is the portrait of the Actor Kemble, at Dulwich, and of Joseph NollekPns, the sculptor, at the National Gallery in London.

Our painting of the Tambourine Girl is a typical example of the style of the nineteenth century French master, William Adolphe Bouguereau, whose work was eagerly collected by American as well as European connoisseurs in the 1870s. Like Beechey, he had been intended for a different career than that of a painter. He was originally sent to a business house in Bordeaux but he studied art in a drawing school for two hours a day, on the side, and succeeded in winning the prize at the end of the year, to the great disgust of the other pupils. A riot and protect followed but he kept his laurels. He earned money to go to Paris by executing portraits in a rural community, and having saved nine hundred francs was able to go to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He won the Grande Prix in 1850 which enabled him to go to Rome. He became famous in 1854 with a painting of the Burial of St. Cecilia, which is now in the Luxembourg. For many years his great historical and religious subjects were the outstanding paintings of the Salon. The government paid him twelve thousand francs for a religious painting in 1876. He decorated rooms in the Hotel Pereire, a concert room at the Bordeaux theatre and did decorative work in the churches of St. Clothilde and St. Augustin. His work is highly finished. He was a perfect draughtsman and colorist and he attained a degree of naturalism which has probably never been surpassed. His delightful painting of the young girl with a tambourine shows how perfectly he could paint hands. The flesh tones are of melting quality and there is a charm in his work which was irresistible to the nineteenth century collector. Now, after a period of neglect, his paintings are winning a new admiration.

Joshua Reynolds



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