Important Art by Joshua Reynolds
This painting is an early self-portrait by Reynolds; a subject he returned to often throughout his career. This was probably painted prior to his trip to Europe and in it he shows himself turning to look towards the viewer, his left hand positioned at his forehead as if helping him to see better (or shading himself from bright light?). In his right hand he holds an artist's palette and a mahlstick. As such, this work bears the distinction of being the only self-portrait in which the artist depicted himself with the tools of his profession. That he did this at a young age, demonstrates his pride in his career and the painting acts as an assertion of himself as an artist and serves as an early indication of his skill as a self-publicist. The painting was originally vertical in format and was later reduced at the top and bottom, probably in the 19th century.
The composition of the piece departs from the norms of portraiture for the period where sitters were portrayed formally and in well-established poses. This is noted by art historian Mark Hallett, who writes that, "very differently, Reynolds depicts himself as a man of action, who, raising his arm to his face as he twists away from his canvas, is caught in the moment of painting". This sense of movement and the use of a non-standard pose can be seen as an early experiment that would inform Reynolds later portraits.
Miss Kitty Fisher features a woman wearing a fashionable gown, multiple strands of pearls around her neck, and a pearl encrusted tiara in her dark hair. Her head is titled slightly to the left as she looks keenly at the viewer. On the table in the foreground there is a partially unfolded letter which reads "My dearest Kit" and is dated "2 June 1759". Reynolds painted Fisher on a number of occasions and at first glance, one sees a portrait of an aristocratically-styled woman who is the picture of decorum and sophistication. The sitter, however, was in fact a courtesan who was famous in British society for her sexual alliances with a number of high-profile aristocrats. Reynolds subtly draws attention to her reputationby the inclusion of the letter, apparently from one of her admirers.
The work demonstrates Reynolds' eclectic choice of subjects, including those that would court controversy and shock the public. In fact, Fisher was not the only courtesan that he painted, the well-known Nelly O'Brien also sat for him multiple times. The way Fisher is depicted can be seen as a forerunner to modernism. While the subject of courtesans and prostitutes had long been depicted in art, here Reynolds does so in a new way, presenting a woman who would be known by the viewing public, boldly staring out at and confronting the viewer in an unapologetic fashion. She displays no shame about her profession. It is this same type of gaze that, years later, would cause outrage in Edouard Manet's paintings Olympia (1856) and The Luncheon on the Grass (1862).
David Garrick, the famous actor, playwright, and theater manager is depicted in a pastoral setting between a blonde woman wearing a provocatively low-cut dress (comedy) and a more conservatively dressed woman in a blue robe (tragedy). Reynolds was a great admirer of the theater and his patronship also helped him to maintain his circle of contacts and gain introductions to new clients. He was a close friend of Garrick and this image references Garrick's profession as an actor showing him being pulled between the two genres of theater. This idea of a person represented or divided by different elements was utilized more than once by Reynolds and can also be seen in paintings such as Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1783-84) in which the figures of Terror and Fear lurk in the shadows.
The clothes and stylized poses of the women reflect their different roles and this is an example of Reynolds' widespread use of symbolism in portraiture. Not only do the figures embody their respective acting genres, however, but the painting also takes on a wider allusion, comparing Garrick's theatrical choice to that of Hercules. In classical mythology, Hercules had to choose between the paths of Virtue and Vice, often represented as figures in allegorical works of the period. In comparing Garrick with Hercules, Reynolds makes a humorous comment on 18th century concepts of heroes and heroism. Whilst this lighthearted approach was appreciated by many, it was seen as flippant and verging on disrespectful to the traditions of classical art by others, notably the American-British artist Benjamin West.