Portrait of a Lady with Mask and Cherries
This intriguing portrait of a fashionable young woman by the British artist Benjamin Wilson (1721–88), is unusual compared to the eminent and serious gentlemen that are normally found among his sitters. An admirer of historic ‘Old Master’ painters, Wilson appears to reference the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) in this delicately painted portrayal, similar in pose to Rembrandt’s Saskia as Flora (1634) in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The relaxed pose and engaging half-smile are complemented by the lightly-rendered clothing, with a translucent embroidered shawl edged in gold draped loosely about the sitter’s shoulders. Dangling from her wrist, and making a fashion statement, is a half-mask worn at masquerades that were popular entertainment for genteel society in the mid-eighteenth century. In one hand, she holds a straw basket full of cherries, plucking a couple from the basket with her other hand, perhaps alluding to a sweet character and good fortune.
After a successful career as a portrait painter in Dublin, Ireland, in the late 1740s, Wilson moved to London and built on his reputation as both a scientist and artist, becoming a fellow of the Royal Society and earning the patronage of Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany (1739–67). Some of his sitters were scientists, where his interests overlapped. He experimented with electricity, even publishing a book on his research into lightning conductors and receiving the gold Copley medal in 1760 for his experiments into the electrical properties of tourmaline. He was appointed Painter to the Board of Ordnance and was often invited to the royal court at Windsor.