The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Mrs Mary Robinson
  • Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792)
  • Mrs Mary Robinson
  • England
  • 1783 - 1784
  • Painting
  • Oil on canvas
  • Image size: 77 x 63.5 cm, unframed
    Frame size: 102 x 89 x 10.5 cm
  • P45
  • West Room
Further Reading
  • 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 became 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 his 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 time, Robinson withdrew from fashionable society and focused instead on her career as a writer. The melancholic pose and feel of this portrait may allude to her changed circumstances and in particular to her longing for her departed companion. The composition is also reminiscent of Veronese’s Dream of St. Helena (c.1540, National Gallery, London), which Reynolds would have known. In fact, the artist produced a sketch after Veronese’s picture, which seems to anticipate his depiction of Robinson.

    It is thought 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 at Christie’s in 1859. However, the portrait was never sold in Reynolds’s lifetime, and remained in his studio. It was engraved by William Birch in 1787, and given the fitting title ‘Contemplation’. In fact, the painting itself was listed under this title in the 1859 sale.

    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. Nonetheless, recent technical analysis has shown that the portrait was considerably reworked and that the composition underwent a significant change before the final pose was established: an X-ray image revealed that the sitter’s right arm was originally raised in a melancholic or ‘penseroso’ pose, with her chin resting on her hand. 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, as the arm is also depicted in the lowered position.