Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792)
- Mrs Mary Robinson
- 1783 - 1784
- Oil on canvas
- Image size: 77 x 63.5 cm, unframed
Frame size: 102 x 89 x 10.5 cm
- West Room
- Mary Robinson (1758-1800) was one of the best known actresses and writers of the 18th century. She was also one of the most painted and caricatured woman of the period (see P37, P42 and M40). Having first appeared on stage in 1776, it was a later performance in The Winter’s Tale for which the actress became particularly famous; a part which earned her the nickname ‘Perdita’. It was in this role that Mrs Robinson first caught the attention of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), with whom she went on to have a brief but notorious affair.
Mary Robinson was a close friend of Reynolds and it is thought that they might have devised the present composition together, drawing on the dramatic recent events of her life. In 1783, she had suffered a partial paralysis whilst travelling to Dover in pursuit of her lover, Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833), who had fled the country as a result of gambling debts. After this accident, Robinson withdrew from fashionable society and devoted her time to writing. Her melancholic pose and expression may allude to her changed circumstances and her longing for her absent companion. The composition is reminiscent of Veronese’s Dream of St. Helena (c.1540, National Gallery, London), which Reynolds loosely copied in a sketch.
The broad handling of paint is characteristic of Reynolds’s later style, although the sketchiness of the lower section of the picture suggests it might be unfinished. Recent technical analysis revealed that the portrait was considerably reworked: the sitter’s right arm was originally raised in a melancholic or ‘penseroso’ pose, with her chin resting on her hand (see P47). This adjustment confirms that a related painting (now in the collection at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), which was previously thought to be a preparatory sketch for the present picture, was probably painted after it, since the arm is also depicted in the lowered position.
The portrait was remained in Reynolds's studio. It was engraved by William Birch in 1787, and given the fitting title ‘Contemplation’. It is possible that the connection to the Veronese painting, which had once been in the possession of the Hertford family, may partly explain the 4th Marquess of Hertford’s interest in the present picture, which he bought in 1859.