Case Study

Sir Joshua Reynolds:

Original, Copy, or Studio Version

"Boy with a Drawing in his Hand"
Before Treatment
Reynolds's Fancy Pictures
The renewed interest in Reynolds's fancy pictures is a direct result of the brilliant research undertaken by Dr. Martin Postle. His book, Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures, offers the basis for understanding the treated Flint painting within Reynolds's artistic spectrum.(18)
The fancy pictures, seen today as a separate genre within Reynolds's career, were non-commissioned works he created for his own pleasure. Though not a word in current use, the term fancy fits perfectly within Reynolds's own time period and creative instincts. The fancy images "presented a vignette: either a detail extracted from some larger drama, a parodic conceit, or a meditation on a commonplace activity, usually involving one or two figures."(19)
James Northcote assisted Reynolds from 1771 to 1776. A gifted artist in his own right, Northcote is better known today for his 1818 two-volume text, The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Northcote recounts the importance that the fancy pictures held for Reynolds in his statement: "I have known him to work days and weeks on his fancy subjects ... while numbers of his portraits remained unfinished."(20)
The commonplace genre had deep roots within Dutch 17th-century traditions. Period artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, De Hooch, Ostade, and Steen all captured snapshots of Dutch life composing scenes of simple interiors and activities. Their work influenced the French 18th-century compositions of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and others. Engravings after their paintings were wildly popular and made their way to England. In 1768, Reynolds traveled to Paris, where he visited the studio of François Boucher. He so enjoyed the trip, he made a second in 1771. As he did during his 1750 Italian excursion, Reynolds seized the opportunity to draw and sketch images that caught his attention. He was certainly aware of Dutch and French genre traditions and they influenced his choice of subject matter for the fancy pictures.
As previously stated, Reynolds may have painted only the portrait head and hands on many of his pictures, leaving the drapery, landscape, and objects to his assistants. With the fancy pictures, however, he worked on the entire composition himself. While these personal works held a unique fascination for the artist, there were also deeper themes that he explored within the pictures. This concept will be examined later in this Study.
The fancy pictures can be divided into several categories including theatrical imagery, historical subjects, and children. The young models for these latter paintings were often orphans or street children. Ernest Fletcher records in his conversations with James Northcote, "Sir Joshua was incessantly practicing from hired models and from children--beggar children."(21) "The hired models, being dependent people, were quiet and gave no trouble. ... Good God how he used to fill the studio with such malkins, you would have been afraid to come near them."(22)
During the 1770s, Reynolds consistently produced child fancy pictures. This has been attributed to years where commissions slacked. However, the explanation does not give Reynolds his due, for he still managed to produce pictures from child models during "high-volume years." A review of several of these is offered below.

Child Subjects
The earliest painting from this artistic category, " Boy Reading," is signed and dated 1747. In this quiet composition, the viewer becomes a silent voyeur catching the child's meditative moment. The piece was never meant to be a portrait of a known individual, but rather a study for Reynolds's own pleasure. The composition and mood seem to be directly influenced by Rembrandt's 1655 portrait of his son, Titus. The accent on the quiet moment in thought--the sitters reflecting on what they just thought or read-- the "alone moment," is something that both Rembrandt and Reynolds captured.

"Boy Reading" 1747
Private Collection

Rembrandt van Rijn "Titus" 1655
Museum Boijmans

The "Boy Reading" became part of an artistic thread for Reynolds in the 1770s when he began to produce child fancy pictures on a more regular basis. His 1771 "A Girl Reading" was exhibited at the Royal Academy and initiated a decade-long return to the genre he'd previously explored. It is interesting to note that Reynolds did not title the piece "A Portrait of a Girl Reading" but just "A Girl Reading" for the image was never intended to be a portrait painting. While the sitter is known, Reynolds is quoted as saying to her, "I only use your head as I would that of any beggar--as good practice."(23) This is precisely the point. Reynolds was painting for himself. as an exercise, as practice. It could have been anyone.

"A Girl Reading"
The image of a sleeping child engaged Reynolds for many years. Was it the vulnerable innocence of the sleeping child that captured Reynolds's attention, or the voyeur connotation? A commissioned portrait would never have carried these suggestions.
The two paintings represented here, one from 1770 and the other from 1788, were both exhibited at the Royal Academy. Reynolds allowed students to copy his works, and he even produced his own versions on occasion.(24) Mannings records eleven versions of these two paintings.(25) When the "Sleeping Girl" was exhibited at the British Institution in 1847, eighteen full-size copies were made in addition to smaller versions.(26) (The British Institution, Pall Mall, was founded June 4, 1805, and opened January 18, 1806, to promote the fine arts in the United Kingdom; it ceased operation in 1867.) Consequently, it is understandable that attribution difficulties are at the core of Reynolds's oeuvre today.

"Children in the Woods" 1770

"Sleeping Girl" 1788
This next painting, "Cupid as a Link Boy," is as much an allegorical metaphor as it is an important piece in Reynolds's child model work. Before the invention of streetlights, a link boy was hired by evening pedestrians to carry a torch of flaming pitch to light the way. (A "link" is a term for the cotton tow that formed the wick of the light.) There was also a more sinister connotation, for these individuals often pretended to guide people to their destinations but actually led them into the hands of robbers. Mannings's statement that "those most likely to suffer at their hands were the very people who trusted them as guides--an obvious parallel to the role of Cupid" defines the painting's contradictory meanings.(27)
One is first struck by the rather insipid expression on the boy's face. Reynolds may very well have chosen one of those rogue link boys as his sitter. His choice also may have had a business aspect to it for the payment to a street model would have been more than modest. The artist's child models were not picked for their good looks as they might be today. The painting was purchased from Reynolds by the 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799) in 1774 along with "Mercury as a Cutpurse," another allegorical fancy picture. The buyer is the same individual who purchased the treated Flint painting.

"Cupid as a Link Boy" ca. 1774
Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Buffalo, New York
Reynolds also used child models for shepherds and shepherd girls. The subject matter alone necessitated children for these works. Once again, the models were from the lower streets of London and their character contrasted sharply with their portrayal as figures of trust and responsibility. In a religious sense, a shepherd boy can be seen not only as a symbol of virtue but also as a Christ image caring for his flock.
Reynolds painted a number of shepherdesses in the 1770s, but Postle suggests "that the iconography was secular rather than sacred."(28) There is the consideration that these paintings were moralistic in nature, depicting a message of sensibility and virtue. One cannot help but notice the expressionless image of the shepherdess below. She appears out of place, almost doll-like, surrounded by a bucolic setting. The piece clearly seems to be a study of form rather than one of psychological content. Perhaps in the process of exploring a design problem or a technical issue, Reynolds became more interested in experimenting with a new resin, wax, or pigment than in producing a lifelike portrait.

"Shepherd Boy"1771
Private Collection

"The Young Shepherdess"ca. 1771
Private Collection
One of Reynolds's more famous fancy pictures is "The Child Baptist in the Wilderness." The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776. While the "original" version was probably destroyed in a fire at Belvoir Castle in October of 1816, this version may well be from the artist's hand. The animated pose of the child is in high contrast to the rather sedate images above and the treated painting. The dramatic, open-mouth pose works well as a device to captivate and pull the viewer into the composition.

"The Child Baptist in the Wilderness" 1776
Wallace Collection
London, England
The subject matter in Reynolds's fancy pictures offers a variety of artistic threads: secular, religious, pastoral, and interrelated themes. The treated painting is included in an unusual subgroup and will be examined on the next page.
(18) Postle, Martin. Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures. Cambridge. 1995. The outline and background for this page is drawn from this text.
(19) Postle, M. p.58.
(20) Northcote, J. p.23.
(21) Postle, M. p.62. Postle records this from Fletcher. (ed.) (1901) Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward on art and Artists. p.77.
(22) Ibid., pp.120-121.
(23) Postle, M. p.58. Footnote 2. Maria Edgeworth to her sister, Mrs. Butler. 29 March 1831 in Barry, 1931. Maria Edgeworth: Chosen Letters. 1931. London. p.380.
(24) Northcote, J. Vol. II. p.180.
(25) Mannings, D. As noted in catalogue entries #2044 and #2047.
(26) Postle, M. p.61.
(27) This quote is drawn from Postle's catalogue entry #2060 in Mannings. D. Postle cites quote from Exhibition Catalogue, Royal Academy 1986, p.264. Purchase information from 2000 catalogue entry.
(28) Postle, M. p.74.


Table of Contents, Biography, Reynolds's Fancy Pictures, The "Net Boy"


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