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This is a version of an unfinished picture now in the Menil Foundation Collection, Houston. The existence of many versions of this work can be explained by the fact that Sir Joshua Reynolds encouraged his students to copy it. The sitter is thought to be Francis (Frank) Barber, the servant of Dr Johnson. Johnson held Barber in high esteem, flouting convention by educating him and making him his principal heir. Here, Reynolds has dignified the sitter, posing him in the manner usually preserved for an aristocratic white man. The original version was probably painted in the 1770s, a period at which the slave trade was still in operation in America and Europe's colonies.

December 1999