Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792)
- The Strawberry Girl
- 1772 - 1773
- Oil on canvas
- Size: 76.6 x 63.7 x 2 cm, unframed
Frame size: 97 x 84 cm
- The Strawberry Girl is an example of Reynolds’s so-called ‘fancy pictures’, which typically showed children in sentimental costume or guises. In this case, the subject was adapted from the real-life figure of a strawberry seller. However, Reynolds’s depiction of a child is not consistent with contemporary representations of the subject and this aspect appears to have been the artist’s own invention. Similarly, Reynolds has removed the figure from its traditional urban setting and portrayed her in an exotic costume (the turban is particularly curious). The innovativeness of Reynolds’s design may account for its popularity; certainly the artist himself is known to have considered the Strawberry Girl to be his most original and successful work.
Reynolds produced at least four versions of the Strawberry Girl in the 1770s. The surviving two examples – the present picture and another in the collection at Bowood House, Wiltshire – correspond to two distinct compositional types, also reflected in their respective engravings. The principal difference concerns the style of the headdress – in the Bowood painting (known as type A), the tassels of the cap cover the girl’s hair completely. However, an X-ray of the present picture has revealed that it originally resembled the alternative composition – the adjustment of the cap, under which the subject’s hair is now visible, therefore represents a reworking of the original design. As Reynolds’s pupil, James Northcote (1746-1831), recorded: ‘the picture was exhibited and repeated […] for he always advised, as a good mode of study, that a painter should work on them alternately; by which means, if chance produced a lucky hit, as it often does, then, instead of working on the same piece […] he should do to the other and improve upon that.’
It is partly as a result of Reynolds’s experimental approach to painting and in particular his use of unconventional materials that the condition of the present picture is deteriorated. Multiple layers of varnish have been detected and, consequently, it is now difficult to discern any variation in the tonality of the dress, for example – although analysis suggests that the underskirt and overlying apron were originally painted in varying colours.
This painting is not thought to have been commissioned and remained in Reynolds’s collection until his death. Nonetheless, the composition (in its various versions) was much copied and widely admired – together with The Age of Innocence (Tate collection, London), it became the most popular of Reynolds’s fancy pictures in the 19th century. The 4th Marquess of Hertford acquired this painting in 1856, following the advice of his London agent Samuel Mawson.