Case Study

Sir Joshua Reynolds:

Original, Copy, or Studio Version

"Boy with a Drawing in his Hand"
Before Treatment

The "Net Boy"
Within Reynolds's child fancy pictures is a group of paintings using the same model, the so-called "Net Boy." For some reason, Reynolds took a particular interest in this young orphan boy and used him in five, possibly six, of his compositions. All were completed over a short period in the 1770s. John Frederick Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset, purchased three of the paintings.
Why Reynolds used this particular male model is not known but clearly something about the boy caught his attention. William Mason, a friend of Reynolds, noted the following: "He was an orphan of the poorest parents, and left with three or four other brothers and sisters, whom he taught, as they were able, to make cabbage nets: and with these he went about him, offering them for sale, by which he provided both for their maintenance and his own. What became of him afterwards I know not. This boy ... though not handsome, had an expression in his eye so very forcible, and indicating so much sense, that he was certainly a most excellent subject for his pencil."(28) While the last sentence is somewhat speculative, it is clear that there was something that drew Reynolds to the boy. It simply could be that he was an excellent model with an ability to hold a pose, a task most children would have found difficult.

"A Beggar Boy and his Sister"
The first painting using this young model was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1775 as "A Beggar Boy and his Sister."(29) The boy, who seems to be about ten or eleven, holds a cabbage net and, with no emotion, stares out at the viewer. His sister, seeking protection, hides behind his shoulder. Reynolds recorded the boy in his sitter-book as the "Net Boy," the term that is now used to refer to the sitter. There is a certain aloofness in the boy's portrayal, as if Reynolds's interest was more focused on the painting's composition than on the child's predicament. Using Rembrandt lighting and Murillo subject matter, Reynolds has created a realistic image of the boy's daily life. The picture was purchased in 1775 by the 3rd Duke of Dorset, as recorded in his account book.
In 1774, Reynolds also recorded the following in his sitter-book: "No black ... Asphaltum used in a glaze with lake."(30) Asphaltum, also referred to as bitumen, is made through a process of distilling natural oil. The crude is normally heated to drive off moisture, with the remaining particles then ground in linseed oil for the painter's use. As a pigment, it is one of the least desirable, for the black mixture never fully dries. In Painting Materials, Stout writes: "It was much favored by the XVIII century English school, with unfortunate consequences: those paintings which contained it have become disfigured because of shrinkage of the paint films and 'alligatoring.' Harder paint films put over it sometimes crack and curl."(31) While the pigment offered an exceptional dark tone, its "alligatoring," or harsh cracking, remove it as a preferred pigment. The choice, though, is characteristic of Reynolds, who may have used the pigment--and the painting--as an opportunity to experiment with an apothecarian recipe.

"A Beggar Boy and his Sister" 1774
The Faringdon Collection
Buscot park, England


"Boy with a Portfolio"
While "A Beggar Boy and his Sister" depicted the "Net Boy" as he was, "Boy with a Portfolio" records him in a far different appearance: as a student.(32) The boy holds an oversize portfolio that he clasps with both hands, suggesting its scale and importance. He stares without expression at the viewer. The image is clearly one of model and prop, a single individual against a flat background. The model appears to be slightly younger in the previous painting, which dates "Boy with a Portfolio" to late 1774 or early 1775.

"Boy with a Portfolio" ca. 1775
Private Collection
"Boy with a Drawing in his Hand"
The treated Flint painting shows a far different composition. The "Net Boy" is dressed in a beautiful red-velvet Van Dyck costume, a style of dress that belies his orphan status. He is shown seated in profile in an interior setting holding a drawing study of the cast that sits on the table.(33) The imagery is clearly reminiscent of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's "The Draughtsman" from 1737, which also captures a young artist during a moment of self-examination. Chardin returned to this theme in a later composition from 1748 titled "The Drawing Lesson." The Dutch artist, Gabriel Metsu portrayed a comparable theme--even including a cast on the table--in 1655. Reynolds could easily have been familiar with these works from his 1768 and 1771 trips to Paris. The boy in Reynolds's painting, slightly older than depicted in "Boy with a Portfolio," dates this work to 1776. A further examination of this painting will take place later in this Study.

"Boy with a Drawing in his Hand" 1776
Flint Institute of Arts
Flint, Michigan

Chardin "The Draughtsman" 1737
The Louvre
Paris, France
  "Boy Reading"  
Postle states that "Boy Reading" was purchased by George Hardinge along with its pendant fancy picture "A Girl Crying." While the dimensions of these paintings are similar, they are not identical, possibly ruling out that they were intended as companion pieces.(34) "Boy Reading," almost appears to be a pendant for "Boy with a Drawing in his Hand."(35)
The compositional similarity found in "Boy Reading" and "Boy with a Drawing in his Hand" is unmistakable. The sitter and the seated profile are the same, and the interior is almost identical. The model in "Boy Reading" is now dressed in more "contemporary" clothing. Once again, the boy seems slightly older than the previous painting, which dates the piece to 1777, the same year it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. As with "Boy with a Portfolio," Postle records the inherent thematic oxymoron also within this picture: "The individual in question would not, in life, have had any use for a book or portfolio--being unable to read or write."(36) Jean-Baptiste Greuze's 1757 "A Student" may very well have influenced "Boy Reading." Both compositions show a single male model in an unpretentious interior. Greuze's depiction of the boy in a moment of inner thought easily relates to the treated painting as well.

"Boy Reading" 1777
Private Collection

Greuze "Boy Reading" 1757
National Gallery of Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland

  "The Fortune Teller"  
Reynolds used the "Net Boy" one final time in "The Fortune Teller," a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777 and purchased by the 3rd Duke of Dorset in 1778.(37) While the subject matter was well known, Reynolds would not have been influenced by George de La Tour's composition of the same theme for that painting carried more sinister overtones. Reynolds may have based his work on Caravaggio's 1599 version now in the Louvre. Reynolds was probably well-acquainted with the painting, for it was owned by Louis XVI, who reigned from 1774 to 1791. The Duke, an English ambassador to the French court, may also have known the painting.
There is a certain tension with the placement of the boy within the composition. He seems to be an afterthought, and his vapid expression contrasts sharply with the girl's animation. His forward, overstrained pose is reminiscent of Jacob Jansz de Witt, the center, first-row figure, in Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp."

"The Fortune Teller" ca. 1777
Waddesdon Manor
National Trust, England

"Caravaggio "The Fortune Teller" 1599
The Louvre
Paris, France

Detail "Fortune Teller"

Rembrandt van Rijn Detail Reversed "... Dr. Tulp"
Mauritshuis Collection
The Hague, Holland
The "Net Boy" holds a curious position within Reynolds's fancy work. While other individuals had their image painted on several occasions, these were all commissioned portraits. It is not known why the artist favored this model, but the above images indicate he held a special place for the artist who exhibited three of the five paintings of the boy at the Royal Academy.
(28) Mannings, D. Catalogue entry #2016, quoting from Cotton, W. Sir Joshua Reynolds's Notes and Observations on Pictures. 1859. p.57. Last sentence from Postle, M. Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures. p.95.
(29) Mannings, D. Catalogue entry #2016.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Gettens and Stout. Painting Materials. 1966. New York. p.94.
(32) Mannings, D. Catalogue entry #2028.
(33) Mannings, D. Catalogue entry #2027.
(34) Mannings, D. Catalogue entry #2026.
(35) Postle, M. Postle supports his assertion that "Boy Reading" and "A Girl Crying" were pendants for they were both purchased by George Hardinge in 1778 and together can be seen as "allegorical commentaries upon the Hogarthian theme (sic) of 'industry' and 'idleness.'" A similar argument, though, could be made that "Boy Reading" and "Boy with a Drawing in his Hand" are pendants as depictions of two of the classical Arts. The dimensions of the three paintings are: "Boy Reading," 76.2cm. x W. 63.5cm; "A Girl Crying," 75cm. x 61cm; and "Boy with a Drawing in his Hand," 73.7cm. x 61cm. "A Girl Crying" is actually closer in size to the treated painting than it is to "Boy Reading." p.101.
(36) Postle, M. p.98.
(37) Mannings, D. Catalogue entry #2069. Postle infers that the same model may have been used in "The Calling of Samuel," entry #2150, but the figure is so stylized as to possibly be another model.


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


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