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Girl with a Baby

Girl with a Baby belongs to a series of sketches, mostly dating from the 1780s, of which many were technical experiments that have deteriorated badly, like this one. In an attempt to emulate Venetian painting, particularly Titian, Reynolds experimented with different pigments, binders and varnishes. Because of the worn and uneven surface and the deep craquelure it is almost impossible to see the child and the toy in the mother’s upper hand. Analysis is still required to determine the pigments and varnish, which might be egg and/or soot.

On the back of the painting is a portrait by Sir William Beechey of his friend Sir Francis Bourgeois (DPG17), the founder of the gallery and himself a great admirer of Reynolds. Beechey who owned the painting and gifted it to the gallery in 1836 may have preserved the unstable Reynolds work by painting on its back. Beechey commented on Reynolds’ method of using egg varnish stating that it ‘alone would in a short time tear any picture to pieces’.

The intimate scene of a nude young mother and child was not intended as a portrait and Reynolds might have used the same model with her distinctive pointed chin in two other genre paintings (Lesbia and Girl warming her hands, both private collections). The sitter is thought to be Emma Lyon, later known as Emma Hart, who eventually became Lady Hamilton. Hart modelled for different artists in the Royal Academy, including Romney, Lawrence, Westall, Le Brun and his wife Vigée and Angelica Kaufmann during the time this was thought to have been painted. The suggestion that the model was Emma Hart was supported by Frank R. Argent, who compared this painting to others featuring the same model such as George Romney’s Adriane, his Comedy and Richard Westall’s L’allegro. However the condition of the painting does not allow a conclusive comparison with other portraits and paintings featuring the famous beauty. Argent furthermore thought the baby to be Emma’s illegitimate child with Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, born in 1782. That seems unlikely, as Emma had to return to her new protector Charles Greville soon after the birth and her daughter was sent away. As Greville wished to avoid publicity, it is unlikely that Emma would have had the opportunity to be painted with her baby by a high-profile painter such as Reynolds. 

Currently on display

Artist
Reynolds, Sir Joshua
Date
c. 1782-83
Location
Gallery 2
Dimensions
92 x 79.5
Materials
Oil on Panel
Acquisition
W. Beechey, bef. 1811, and perhaps bt by him at one of the Reynolds sales which contained sketches and unfinished works; gift of W. Beechey, 1836.
Accession number
DPG017A