Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 240.4 x 146.4 cm
Inv. no. P35
The full-length portraits Reynolds painted of his female sitters in the 1770s typically depict solitary figures strolling through woodland landscapes, which have been animated through dappled sunlight. Wearing sumptuous dresses and extravagant wigs, the sitters appear to enjoy their isolation as a time for quiet reflection.
In these portraits Reynolds underlined sitter’s place in the fashionable elite of the day, and their involvement in the contemporary cult of sensibility through their harmonious interaction with nature.
An outstanding example of this type of portrait is Reynolds’s painting of Elizabeth Carnac. The daughter of Thomas Rivett, a member of parliament for Derby, and Anna Maria Sibley, Elizabeth married John Carnac in 1769.
John, who was 30 years older than Elizabeth, was a brigadier-general in the East India Company and a close associate of Robert Clive, a ruthless colonial governor in Bengal. While in India, both Clive and Carnac amassed great wealth and power through dubious means. In 1767, Carnac returned to Britain and acquired both a country estate and a seat in parliament.
It is possible to view Carnac’s marriage to Elizabeth, and his subsequent commission of a portrait of her from Reynolds, as part of his aspirations to social and cultural influence. In the painting, Elizabeth is swathed in a white silk dress trimmed with gold, which was likely painted by one of Reynolds’s studio assistants, and wears a tall wig embellished with ostrich feathers.
She stands before an idyllic pastoral scene, comprising trees and a stream, which evoke the type of country house parkland Carnac had recently obtained with his newfound riches and where he and his wife could enjoy the pleasures of rural life. Just as Elizbeth’s head is framed by gold trim of her boddice, the trees of the wooded landscape seem to reach out to frame her standing figure.
Elizabeth’s luxurious clothing reveal her wealth and social standing; the way in which she turns her head away from the viewer conveys a sense of modesty and restraint. Reynolds painted a portrait of the famous socialite, writer and activist Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire (now in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery), which although resembling Elizabeth’s portrait, shows Georgina looking out directly to the viewer with a self-assured confidence.
Reynolds likely started work on Elizabeth’s portrait in 1775, and completed it by 1776, the year Carnac was re-posted to India at short notice. The couple left without paying Reynolds for the work or collecting it from him.
It remained with Reynolds until his death in 1792, before appearing in his studio sale in 1796 and passing to Elizabeth’s nephew, Sir James Rivett Carnac (who also served as a colonial governor in India), by about 1820. In 1861, the 4th Marquess of Hertford bought the portrait at auction.
Text adapted from Hallett, M., 'Mrs Elizabeth Carnac', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 21.