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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Joshua Reynolds: Nelly O’Brien – c1762–4

London, Wallace Collection

This piece has a curiously ‘modern’ feel — it would not look out of place in an exhibition of works from the last years of the nineteenth century. The direct and challenging stare, the fact that her hat is casting a shadow over the most important part of any portrait, the head —somehow it seems to belong to a later era. If one contrasts this picture with two admirable portraits, Mrs Carnac by Reynolds himself, and Mrs Robinson by Thomas Gainsborough hung only a few feet away in the Wallace Collection, or for that matter, with most of the rest of Reynolds’ output, the difference in approach is marked. This is interesting as Reynolds is famous as the arch classicist, exhorting his followers and students to follow the precepts of the Grand Style, drawing inspiration from the Italian masters and from the classical world, a path set out so influentially in his Discourses, delivered over a number of years to the Royal Academy which was founded just a few years after this painting was created.

Nelly was a friend of Reynolds and a much admired beauty. He used her as a model in a number of his paintings. She was also a courtesan and it is tempting to propose that this might be why she has adopted a very direct stare — as though she is saying ‘any problems?’ Her elegant hands enclose her lapdog which (true to its role) sits contentedly amidst the folds of her dress. The dress is painted with great skill as is the lace which falls onto it from her sleeves. The dark colour of her bodice encloses an alluring expanse of creamy skin from the choker encompassing her throat to the first swellings of her breasts. She seems so much more interesting and full of life than the equally beautiful but somehow more distant belles who now grace the same wall.

There are fascinating parallels between this picture and another marvellous (and exactly contemporary) portrait by Gainsborough — that of Countess Howe at Kenwood. Although the pose is different, that same unswerving stare engages the viewer from beneath similar hats and one feels that one is in the presence of similarly remarkable women, albeit from different social positions.

If, like me, you are a touch bored by much of Reynolds’ output then this picture is like a breath of fresh air showing us a different artist from the man who was head of a thriving studio, assistants at hand, to help churn out an endless supply of portraits for fashionable London.

Image: Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, London

Wallace Collection Website

Contemporary Works

1760 Francesco Guardi: Venice: The Arsenal, London, National Gallery

1763 Francesco Guardi: Miracle of a Dominican Saint, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

c1763 Jean-Baptiste Greuze: The Broken Mirror, London, Wallace Collection

Further Paintings of Interest

Juan de Pareja

Diego Velázquez

The Progress of Love: The Meeting

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Old Walton Bridge