This beautifully fluid painting is a rare unfinished portrait by Joshua Reynolds. Preserved in outstanding condition, the picture has been dated by Martin Postle to around 1770, the moment at which Reynolds secured his reputation as the dominant artistic figure in Britain. It was a reputation made, in part, thanks to his ability to paint women; during the 1770s Reynolds made a series of spectacular full-length portraits of female patrician sitters which he exhibited to great critical acclaim at the Royal Academy. Unlike those grand, formal machines, this intimate study demonstrates Reynolds’s ability both to capture character and his technical virtuosity at handling paint. Reynolds’s studio was hugely prolific and there is considerable evidence to suggest that Reynolds left draperies and backgrounds to his assistants focussing, instead, on painting heads. In the present vivacious work, Reynolds has rapidly captured the head with liquid strokes of oil paint, carefully articulating the sitter’s profile against a dark background.
By the date this vivacious head study was made Joshua Reynolds had been elected the founding President of the Royal Academy. As such he played a key role in raising the status of art and of artists in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century. He is responsible for having transformed portraiture into an art form which had all the ambition and vitality of history painting, whilst also conveying the psychology of the sitter. His Discourses, the lectures he delivered to students and members of the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790, had an enduring influence on art theory and criticism in Britain. During the 1770s Reynolds fully embraced the opportunities presented by the Royal Academy, exhibiting over 100 portraits at the annual exhibitions. As Mark Hallett has noted, it was particularly as a painter of women that he was most celebrated during the decade. Reynolds exhibited 15 full-length female portraits during the decade, far more than any other kind of picture. Some of these were later engraved in mezzotint by Valentine Green and published in a series of ‘Beauties of the present age’, an open homage to the earlier series of ‘Beauties’ by Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller at Hampton Court. As Hallett has observed in this sequence of portraits, Reynolds consciously: ‘crafted a new imagery of the aristocratic beauty.’
This canvas seems likely to be the result of the first couple of sittings for a portrait of a fashionable young woman. Reynolds was constantly exploring new poses and he made a particular feature of depicting beautiful young women in profile. In 1775 Reynolds painted his grand full-length depiction of Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd shown standing in profile carving her husband’s surname on a tree. The present liquid painting shows Reynolds working out the beginnings of composition, giving us much useful information about his working method at a crucial moment in his career.
The remarkable condition of this portrait allows for a full appreciation of Reynolds’ bravura technique. As Martin Postle has pointed out, by the 1770s Reynolds had come to rely on a number of assistants to help him work on the deluge of commissions. In a letter dated 1777 to Daniel Daulby, who had enquired about having his portrait painted, Reynolds explained his process: ‘it requires in general three sittings about an hour and half each time but if the sitter chooses it the face could be begun and finished in one day. It is divided into separate times for the convenience and ease of the person who sits, when the face is finished the rest is done without troubling the sitter.’ The present painting is therefore the result of perhaps one or two sittings, Reynolds has carefully worked up the face leaving the costume, hair and pose to be completed by assistants.
Unfinished portraits such as this are rare in Reynolds’s oeuvre and offer important evidence for his working method. Reynolds learnt to paint in the studio of Thomas Hudson, who taught a method of laying-in pictures initially in a cool monochrome underpainting and then gradually finishing them by building the portrait through layers of glazing and scumbling, and in many instances, a layer (or layers) of tinted varnish. During the first sitting the face would have been blocked in using a fairly cool monochrome colour, the white and grey passages evident in the neck and torso of the present portrait, and part of the pose may also have been sketched in. William Mason gave a description of Reynolds at work, noting that the canvas had ‘light-coloured ground’, as it does here, adding that over the area for the head Reynolds laid a couch of white. This would produce an optically resilient effect. While this patch was still wet and using no other colours than flake white, lake, and black, he began without making any preparatory sketch: ‘with much celerity to scumble these pigments together, till he had produced, in less than an hour, a likeness sufficiently intelligible, yet withal, as might be expected, cold and pallid to the last degree.’ Naples yellow was added to the palette during the second sitting. Mason noted that over the monochrome underpainting Reynolds applied glazes and tinted varnish. The present portrait shows Reynolds having developed the head with sophisticated layers of glazing, but still working with a restricted palette.
Because the present portrait was abandoned after the second sitting, Reynolds had not yet added the delicate glazes or tinted varnish which have so frequently been removed by later restorers, it therefore offers remarkable evidence for how Reynolds’s portraits appeared shortly before their completion. It also shows Reynolds’s portrait stripped of any of the accretions of costume, background or other detail that was regularly left to his studio assistants. As such, this portrait retains a beautifully fresh and immediate quality which many of his finished portraits lack. Each stage of the painting process being legible on the surface of the canvas, from the warm ochre ground, the monochrome dead-colour and the descriptive strokes of black and white paint, such as the long sweep of loaded black which defines the back profile and finally the sensitive layers of glazing, which make up the beautifully modelled face.