This full-length and life size portrait shows a contemporary female aristocratic sitter in costume evocative of the ancient world. She is shown in a flowing white dress trimmed with gold and with a semi-transparent gold wrap over her shoulders and around her arms. Her hair, powdered white, is dressed high in the current fashion. She is posed holding a small plate or dish before her with her left hand, and lightly touching a tall, narrow chalice with her outstretched right hand. This vessel is set on one corner of a low smoking tripod of a standard antique form: some way behind this, to the left, is a high plinth with a sculpture of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The narrative suggestion is that the sitter has poured a libation of oil onto the burning coals as a form of sacrifice in tribute to the goddess, associated with wisdom and the arts. The richly textured painted surface and striking colour scheme of golds, reds and creams, contrasted with the emphatic blue of the sky, recall the work of the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian. Reynolds wanted his portraits to be esteemed as a form of painting as artistically ambitious as the work of such universally admired masters.
The painting is believed to have been included among the fifteen works that Reynolds showed as part of the annual exhibition of contemporary British art at the Royal Academy in London in 1782 where it was shown as an unidentified ‘Portrait of a Lady’. The sitter is, however, certainly Lady Charlotte Talbot (née Hill, 1754–1804), the third daughter of Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire and his wife Margaret Fitzgerald, who had married John Chetwynd Talbot, the 3rd Lord Talbot of Hensol (subsequently Earl Talbot and Viscount Ingestre; 1750–1793) in 1776. The portrait was painted in the second half of 1781, when Reynolds recorded appointments with ‘Lady Charlotte Talbot’ at his London studio, although he may have continued to work on the picture in June 1782 before receiving payment in July of that year.
A mezzotint reproduction of the painting by the leading London printmaker Valentine Green was published on 1 May 1782 while the Royal Academy exhibition was ongoing, and therefore presumably in an attempt to exploit the public display of the painting as a means of securing sales of the print. Green advertised the plate as number ‘XI’ in his ongoing publication A Series of Beauties of the Present Age, engraved from pictures painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. As the art historian Mark Hallett notes in relaying these events, such prints ensured that Reynolds’s paintings of contemporary aristocrats ‘circulated well beyond the realms of aristocratic society, and included images that played an active role in the visual and celebrity culture of contemporary London’ (Mark Hallett in Postle 2005, p.128).
The painting appears to have been commissioned by the 1st Earl Talbot as a pair to the existing portrait of him by the Italian artist Pompeo Batoni (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). This had been created while Talbot was on his Grand Tour to Europe in 1773. Matching Lady Talbot’s Minerva, a feminine embodiment of the virtues of wisdom and strength, the Earl Talbot has the famous classical sculpture known as the Ludovisi Mars (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome), representing masculine martial values. Characteristically of grand portraiture of the eighteenth century, the male sitter is posed in contemporary costume while the female is more playfully presented in a form of historicising fancy dress. Also typical are the circumstances surrounding the commissioning of these portraits: that of the man initiated during his Grand Tour, that of his wife in the early years of their marriage. Thus Reynolds’s portrait serves to underscore conventional gender identities among the social elite, with men associated with public virtues and contemporary responsibilities and women treated more fancifully.
David Mannings with Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London 2000, no.1730.
Martin Postle (ed.), Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2005, p.128.