Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 75.5 x 62.5 cm
Inv. no. P43
Born in humble circumstances in Covent Garden in 1743, Mary Nesbitt (1743–1825) became a famous courtesan, who was connected to a number of important figures in London, including the writer James Boswell (1740–1795).
Mary married the merchant banker Alexander Nesbitt in 1768, and she established herself at Park House in Norwood by 1770, where she held political salons.
She later became the mistress of the 3rd Earl of Bristol (1724–1779), who left her a large fortune on his death in 1779, which resulted in a lawsuit between Mary and Bristol’s son that settled in her favour. Following this, Mary travelled Europe, while possibly acting as a spy, and died in Paris in 1825.
It is likely Mary met Reynolds through the connections of her brother-in-law, Arnold Nesbitt. She sat for the artist a number of times in 1781, which resulted in two portraits, this one and one of her in the guise of the classical sorceress Circe (now in the Smith College Museum of Art).
It is possible both portraits were commissioned to celebrate the end of her legal case and new-found financial independence.
The Wallace Collection portrait represents Mary as a fashionable society figure. Turning to look over her shoulder, she is dressed in a white dress trimmed in gold, to which she holds a dove that could be symbolic of innocence or love.
Technical analysis revealed much about the painting. The dark oval frame around Mary was conceived as part of Reynolds original composition and is not a later addition.
However, the dove held by Mary was found not to be part of Reynolds’s initial design. It appears the artist initially positioned Mary’s left hand at the top of her chest, similar to Reynolds’s portrait of Mrs Fox in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, but later painted the dove over the sitter’s hand and lowered her shoulder to accommodate it.
Overall, the arrangement of Mary holding a dove to her chest bears shows some similarity to compositions in contemporary French art, including a statuette called La Crainte (fear), exhibited by Jean-Baptiste II Lemoyne (1704–1778) in 1771, and paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), such as Woman with Doves.
The art agent Samuel Mawson (1793–1862) bought Mary’s portrait at the 1859 sale of lawyer Edmund Phipps (1808–1857) for the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870). He intended to display it alongside Reynolds’s painting of Mrs Mary Robinson in one of his Parisian houses.
Text adapted from Davis, L., 'Mrs Mary Nesbitt', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 18.