Around 1807, Mulready’s subject matter, previously consisting mostly of landscape and cottage views, began to include narrative genre scenes. These often depicted low-life domestic incidents set in rustic interiors, and The Rattle was his first important essay in this style. It was finished in January 1808 and exhibited at the British Institution shortly afterwards.
The Rattle depicts a simple, intimate scene from family life – a baby and his older brother playing with a toy. Mulready’s meticulous attention to detail, sombre colouring and the dramatic play of light on the figures and objects in the scene – the jug and playing cards on the floor, for example – indicate his debt to Dutch seventeenth-century painting. It is known that Mulready saw and copied works by Dutch and Flemish artists in private collections such as that of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), a later patron. The complicated spatial arrangement of the background, with glimpsed views of interconnecting domestic areas, each lit from a different light source, links the work with interior scenes painted by Pieter de Hooch (1629–84). The subject of the scene was clearly inspired by Dutch prints of the same period; an engraving by Adriaen Van Ostade (1610–85), The Desired Doll (1679: Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco) shows an almost identical scene. A later comment on The Rattle relates the work to that of another Dutch painter, David Teniers (1610–90):
The Rattle is painted very much in the manner of Teniers, except that the background is more solid. It is executed with a flat crisp touch, very little glazing or scumbling, and with no appearance of the stippled manner of his latter years, but a dexterous oneness, such as the Dutch master was so well skilled in. The scheme of dark and light is like Teniers, and all the colour is focused to a single object in the foreground.
(Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, London 1866, p.293.)
Mulready was undoubtedly partly influenced in his adoption and treatment of the narrative genre subject by the success of his friend David Wilkie (1785–1841), whose genre work The Blind Fiddler (N00099) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807 next to Mulready’s own Cottage with Figures (T01746). For this painting, Wilkie was dubbed ‘the English Teniers’. Wilkie shared Mulready’s interest in Dutch seventeenth-century painting, but his style of interpreting such genre subjects differed from Mulready’s in both technique and atmosphere: Heleniak (p.79) points out the distinction between Wilkie’s ‘oil-rich brushstroke’ in comparison with the ‘dry, meticulous drawing’ of The Rattle and other early genre paintings of Mulready. The quiet meditative mood and strong compositional structure of the Mulready painting also contrasts with the busy, varied scene presented in Wilkie’s Blind Fiddler. Wilkie painted The Jew’s Harp (The Walker, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside) shortly after The Rattle was exhibited in 1808; it shows Mulready’s influence in its serene mood and simpler figure grouping. The figure of the small child seen from behind is remarkably similar to Mulready’s baby in T01899.
When painting The Rattle, Mulready had convenient models to hand in the form of his own four small boys, born between 1804 and 1809, and he is known to have drawn them often. Children often feature in Mulready’s oeuvre. Around the time he painted The Rattle, he also made illustrations for children’s books in the Juvenile Library, published by his close friend the philosopher and educationist William Godwin (1756–1836).
According to Mulready’s account book, The Rattle was bought in 1808 by Sir Felix Agar for 30 guineas. It was shown at the 1848 Society of Arts exhibition of Mulready’s work and at the large Mulready exhibition held after the artist’s death in 1864 at the South Kensington Museum. A preparatory drawing and an oil sketch for T01899 are at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Both of these show a third figure looking in on the scene through a window in the background, omitted from the finished painting.
Marcia Pointon, William Mulready 1786 –1863, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986, reproduced in colour p.73.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London 1980, reproduced in colour p.20.