Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. (Plympton, Devon 1723 - London 1793)

Portrait of a Lady, Bust-length, with Pearl Earrings, Unfinished


oil on canvas
59.7 x 45.4 cm (23½ x 17⅞ in)



It has been suggested that this beautiful sitter may have been an as yet unidentified member of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ family. The deeply intimate nature of the painting supports the notion that the sitter may be one of Reynolds’ sisters or a female relative. It is also thought that the work can be dated from c.1755 to 1760, a period when Reynolds’ artistic career was firmly in its ascendency. Indeed, 1758 is recorded in his pocket book as a peak year with sittings noted for every day of the week.

This portrait, whoever the sitter may be, reveals a young woman gazing out enigmatically from the canvas, her eyes shyly meeting those of the viewer. The pearlescent quality of her skin and the precision of her features emphasise dark velvet eyes and a playful rosebud smile. Her upswept hair draws attention to a delicate, swan-like neck and her perfectly oval face; the inclusion of a single earring in her right ear creates a pleasing asymmetry to an otherwise carefully balanced composition. A gentle smile plays about her lips and her whole being radiates serenity and a quiet composure.

The roughly finished head stands in sharp contrast to the unfinished drapery and incomplete background. Just as Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) incompleted figure sculptures for the tomb of Julius II demonstrate, Reynolds’ Portrait of a Lady, Bust-Length, with Pearl Earrings, Unfinished (hereafter, Portrait of a Lady) embodies a purer ideal of beauty as a direct result of its unfinished state. Above all, the unfinished nature of this portrait provides a fascinating insight into Reynolds’ working technique and, equally importantly, into his unique ideology concerning portraiture.

By the 1740s, Reynolds preferred to paint directly onto the canvas with no preliminary drawing, a methodology he applied throughout his career. When completing portraits, Reynolds tended to work on the head of the sitter present, whilst the costume and other details were completed later on. Such a process became standardised among portrait painters of this era and from Reynolds’ own sitters’ books it is clear that at the very least the artist needed an hour to capture an accurate likeness of his sitter’s face. Other aspects of the finished product, such as pose and costume worn, could be completed using models, but the face was of central importance.¹

In the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) who, like Reynolds, was a celebrated portraitist, the artist might only execute the portrait’s head delegating to assistants the task of completing the body, drapery and background. Reynolds is known to have shared this approach, as can be clearly seen in the present work with the crude burgundy lines indicating where, at a later date, the folds of drapery would be formally painted in. Often he used a professional ‘drapery painter’ or one of his assistants. However, alterations show that Reynolds worked over these areas correcting outlines and enhancing particular details. The free handling of the paint and relaxed frontal pose of the sitter creates a sense of youthfulness, whilst remaining dignified in composition. In his fourth Discourse of 1771, Reynolds advised the ‘historical painter’ never to ‘debase his conceptions with minute attention to the discriminations of Drapery...With him, the clothing is neither woollen, nor linen, nor silk, satin or velvet: it is drapery; it is nothing more.’²

Portrait of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, which was executed between 1780 and 1781, presents an apposite comparison to Portrait of a Lady. (Unfinished portraits by Reynolds usually have the head completely finished whilst the background and drapery were left for his studio assistants.) Reynolds took on a number of assistants including James Northcote (1746-1831) whose recollections are particularly helpful in reconstructing the way in which Reynolds executed his portraits.

Reynolds wrote later in his Discourses that he viewed the role of the artist as much about representation as enhancement: ‘...If an exact resemblance of an individual be considered as the sole object to be aimed at, the portrait-painter will be apt to lose more than he gains by the acquired dignity taken from general nature. It is very difficult to ennoble the character of a countenance but at the expense of likeness, which is what is most generally required by such as sit to the painter.’³ This attitude would explain the way in which he chose to represent a number of his sitters among them Lady Cockburn in Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons. As was his habit, Reynolds borrows much in compositional terms from the great portrait painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and it is virtually impossible not to detect unavoidable references to that artist’s allegory Charity. Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons was painted at least twenty years after Portrait of a Lady, nevertheless it is instructive to note how, had Reynolds completed the present work, it might have looked.

Of arguably greater interest is the centrality of classical culture in his works. Lady Cockburn’s husband objected to his wife being named publicly as the sitter and when, in 1791 Reynolds’ work was engraved by Charles Wilkin, the title was changed to Cornelia with her Children. This is an allusion to the famous matron of Roman history, Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers who declared that her children were her only jewels. Portrait of a Lady, despite its unfinished nature could be said to bear a resemblance to portraits of Roman women preserved in fresco form in Pompeii.

From early on in his career, Reynolds attempted to master the female portrait⁴. His ability to do so was questioned by Horace Walpole who remarked ‘Mr. Reynolds seldom succeeds in women; Mr. Ramsay is formed to paint them’. But Reynolds, as this present work demonstrates, showed a deep artistic sensitivity when rendering the female. He also delighted in the range of poses and costumes his female subjects could support. His portrait of Mrs. Hartley, for instance, portrays his contemporary sitters as a nymph and Bacchus. He wrote in his Discourses: ‘He...who in his practice of portrait-painting wishes to dignify his subject, which we suppose to be a lady, will not paint her in modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is sufficient to destroy all dignity...[he] dresses his figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, and preserves something of the modern for the sake of likeness.’⁵

Reynolds was a prolific portraitist with estimates of his total output hovering around the three thousand mark. He has often been referred to as the ‘father’ of British painting, and the founder of a ‘school’ but later on in life he himself renounced such accolades, heaping them instead upon his nearest rival and contemporary, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). His works greatly influenced the subsequent generation of painters that included Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and Henry Raeburn (1756- 1823). He was a proponent of the ‘Grand Style’ of painting; his poses often inspired by classical sculpture or the Old Masters as he looked to enhance the dignity and classical virtue of his sitters.

Born in Devon in 1723, he received a classical education from his father, the Revd. Samuel Reynolds, who was also headmaster of Plympton Grammar School. His father had intended him to become an apothecary but the young Reynolds’ desire to train as an artist led him, in 1740, to spend four years apprenticed to the fashionable London painter, Thomas Hudson (?1701-1779). He spent 1749 to 1752 in Italy studying the Old Masters and developing his taste for the ‘Grand Style’ where he was greatly inspired by the works of Michelangelo, Giulio Romano (?1499-1546), Tintoretto (1519-1594) and Correggio(?1489-1534) among others.

He returned to London in 1752 and set up his first independent studio, first in St. Martin’s Lane and then in Great Newport Street. As a keen intellectual, Reynolds socialised with a number of London’s intelligentsia, including the author Dr. Samuel Johnson, Whig statesman Edward Burke and fellow artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807). As well as receiving frequent royal and aristocratic commissions, Reynolds’ rise to fame mirrored those whose fortunes were made through trade or on the stock exchange, for example, the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Beckford (1755-1756; Tate Collection, London). His great popularity is evident in the remarkable inflation of his prices which rose from forty-eight guineas in the early 1750s to two hundred guineas by the 1780s.

Reynolds was one of the earliest members of the Royal Society of Arts, and alongside his almost exact contemporary, Gainsborough, he helped to establish the Royal Academy of Art in 1768, serving as its first president until his death. Between 1769 and 1790, Reynolds delivered to the Academy his Discourses on Art which to this day remain one of the most articulate panegyrics to the ideals of Western art grounded in the Italian Renaissance.⁶ A year later he was knighted by George III and shortly afterwards he was forced into retirement having lost the sight of his left eye. He died in 1792 at his house in Leicester Fields and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We are grateful to Dr. Martin Postle for dating this work to c.1755-1760 and for suggesting that the sitter may be a member of the artist’s family, as yet unidentified.

¹ Vaughan, W., British Painting: The Golden Age (1999) pp. 42.
² Reynolds, J., Discourses on Art IV, 1771 ed. R. Wark, New Haven and London, 1975.
³ Reynolds, J. Discourses, op. cit.
⁴ Vaughn, W., British Painting: The Golden Age (1999) pp. 82.
⁵ Reynolds, J. Discourse on Art VII, delivered at the Royal Academy, 1776.
⁶ Langmuir, E. The National Gallery, Companion Guide, pp. 316 (1994).