The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Miss Nelly O'Brien
  • Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792)
  • Miss Nelly O'Brien
  • England
  • c. 1762 - 1763
  • Painting
  • Oil on canvas
  • Frame size: 144.5 x 120 x 10 cm
    Image size: 126.3 x 101 cm
  • P38
  • West Room
Images & Media
Further Reading

  • Nelly O’Brien (d. 1768) was a well-known beauty and courtesan, who sat for Reynolds on a number of occasions between 1760 and 1767. The present picture is similar to a work in the Hunterian Art Gallery; both almost certainly date to 1762-3.

    O’Brien is portrayed in fashionable contemporary dress, holding a Maltese lapdog. By c. 1763, she was the mistress of Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke (1732-1787). However, there is no evidence to suggest that the portrait was commissioned. Rather, it is thought that Reynolds painted it without a particular buyer in mind, as a means of demonstrating his skills. The portrait is notable for its interplay of light and shadow, particularly in the upper part of the sitter’s body, where the wide brim of the bonnet casts a shadow over her face and bosom. Reynolds rendered with great subtlety the different tones, colours and fabrics of eighteenth-century costume, particularly in the skirt area, where a transparent layer of lace is convincingly and effectively portrayed overlying the quilted material underneath.

    The portrait was acquired by the 2nd Marquess of Hertford in 1810.

    If indeed the Wallace Collection and Hunterian pictures are the two portraits painted and displayed in such close succession, this would suggest that Reynolds deliberately depicted the same subject in two very different guises, perhaps as a demonstration of his versatility. Whilst the Hunterian portrait shows O’Brien in a timeless theatrical costume, she is portrayed here in contemporary and fashionable dress, holding a Maltese lapdog.

    The sitter’s forward-facing pose, in which she directly engages with the viewer, is bold and suggestive. It is thought that Thomas Lawrence may have been inspired by the composition, when developing his similarly-arresting portrait of the Countess of Blessington, a painting now also in the Wallace Collection (P558). Certainly, Reynolds’s portrait was well-known throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, having been engraved on multiple occasions.