Painted women

Of all Reynolds’s portraits, perhaps the most successful in attracting the attention of his contemporaries were his images of the demi-monde: women who moved amongst the social elite but whose sex lives flouted polite codes of behaviour.

Reynolds made a calculated decision to associate his art with these women. This alienated him from more conservative quarters, but gave him tremendous publicity in fashionable male circles.

London society as a whole was by turns scandalised and fascinated by the behaviour of women such as ‘Kitty’ Fisher or actresses such as Elizabeth Hartley. Reynolds cultivated their friendship and painted their portraits, promoting their celebrity while also making his studio the place where images of the country’s most beautiful women could be seen. Once again, he was making sure he remained the most sought-after portraitist of the age.

Joshua Reynolds Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl, 1759

Your LOVERS are the Great Ones of the Earth, and your ADMIRERS are the Mighty; they never approach you but, like Jove, in a SHOWER of GOLD.

– ‘Simon Trusty’ on Kitty Fisher

In this sexually-charged image Kitty Fisher, a high-class prostitute, is shown as Cleopatra, suspending a large pearl over a goblet of wine. Cleopatra was said to have dissolved a pearl in wine before drinking it; similar tales circulated about Fisher, who was said to have eaten a hundred-pound banknote on a slice of buttered bread.

The notorious Italian adventurer, Casanova, was offered the opportunity to make love to Fisher for ten guineas. He refused on the grounds that she did not speak French.

Joshua Reynolds Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl 1759

Joshua Reynolds
Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl 1759
© English Heritage Photo Library

Joshua Reynolds Kitty Fisher, about 1763-4

Catherine has sat to you in the most GRACEFUL, the most NATURAL, Attitudes, and indeed I must do you the justice to say that you have come as near the ORIGINAL as Possible.

– The Middlesex Journal on Reynolds’s relationship with Fisher

Kitty Fisher was London’s most famous high-class prostitute and a close friend of Reynolds, who painted her many times. This unfinished portrait was presumably painted for the artist’s pleasure rather than a specific commission.

Fisher plays with Reynolds’s pet parrot perched on her finger. Her lips are slightly parted as if she is sweet-talking to the bird, revealing the tender side to her nature. At the time it was rumoured that she was Reynolds’s mistress, although this has never been proved.

Joshua Reynolds Kitty Fisher about 1763-4

Joshua Reynolds
Kitty Fisher about 1763-4
© The Trustees of the Bowood Collection

Joshua Reynolds Nelly O’Brien, about 1762-4

Nelly O’Brien is seated beside a carved relief of Danaë, the princess of classical legend to whom Jupiter made love in the form of a shower of gold - a reference to Nelly’s role as a high-class prostitute.

Reynolds was very fond of O’Brien, and frequently entertained her in his studio. She was one of his favourite models; whether she was also his mistress remains unknown.

Joshua Reynolds Nelly O'Brien about 1762–4

Joshua Reynolds
Nelly O'Brien about 1762–4
© The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Hartley as a Nymph with a Young Bacchus, 1771

She talks LUSCIOUSLY, and has a Slovenly good-nature about her that renders her PRODIGIOUSLY Vulgar.

– A theatrical talent scout on Elizabeth Hartley

Elizabeth Hartley became one of the most celebrated actresses on the London stage, having played such tragic Shakespearian roles as Cordelia and Desdemona in Edinburgh. She had striking red hair, but when Reynolds praised her beauty, she replied that ‘her face was freckled as a toad’s belly’.

Reynolds exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy not as a portrait but as an imaginative ‘fancy picture’. But he knew that many exhibition visitors would recognise her by now famous face, further boosting her career.

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Hartley as a Nymph with a Young Bacchus 1771

Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Hartley as a Nymph with a Young Bacchus 1771
© Tate. Presented by Sir William Agnew Bt 1903

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Abington as ‘Miss Prue’, 1771

This portrait is said to show Mrs Abington in the character of Miss Prue in William Congreve’s bawdy comedy, Love for Love. Miss Prue is a naïve country girl who is seduced by a predatory, half-witted dandy.

Mrs Abington had worked in a brothel before making her name on the stage and was, when Reynolds painted her, the mistress of a wealthy MP. She leans coquettishly over a fashionable chair-back, her thumb poised suggestively before her slightly parted lips: a vulgar, sexually charged gesture.

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Abington as 'Miss Prue' 1771

Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Abington as 'Miss Prue' 1771
© The Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Joshua Reynolds Lady Worsley, about 1776

Reynolds showed this portrait at the first exhibition in the Royal Academy’s spectacular new home at Somerset House. It was clearly designed to make a strong impression.

Lady Worsley wears a tight-fitting riding costume, adapted from the uniform of her husband’s regiment. War with the American colonies had produced a new fashion for women to wear masculine-style clothes, particularly uniforms. Reynolds has responded by adapting the conventions of male portraiture.

Joshua Reynolds Lady Worsley about 1776

Joshua Reynolds
Lady Worsley about 1776
© the Earl and Countess of Harewood and Trustees of the Harewood House Trust

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Abington as ‘Roxalana’, 1782-3

Frances Abington was a celebrated comic actress. Reynolds portrays her as Roxalana, an English slave in Isaac Bickstaffe’s play, The Sultan; or A Peep into the Seraglio. She is, as a contemporary newspaper reported, ‘in the act of drawing the Curtain when she surprises the sultan in his retirement’.

Reynolds was a close friend of Mrs Abington. He would have delighted in connecting the sensuous Roxalana with an actress rumoured to have spent her teenage years working as a prostitute.

Joshua Reynolds Mrs Abington as 'Roxalana' 1782–3

Joshua Reynolds
Mrs Abington as 'Roxalana' 1782–3
© private collection