Date: About 1783–4
Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 77 x 63.5 cm
Inv. no. P45
In elite 18th-century social circles, Mary Robinson (1756/58?–1800) was a fashion phenomenon. An accomplished author and actress, Mary met the 17-year-old Prince of Wales (later George IV; 1762–1830) while playing Perdita in David Garrick’s (1717–1779) Drury Lane production of The Winter’s Tale. Later, she became his mistress, which earned her great fame, as well as criticism in the press.
In 1782, after her liaison with the prince ended, Mary captured the attention of Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833), a cavalry officer who had served in the American Revolutionary War.
Mary’s popularity meant that she was painted by three of the major portraitists working at the time, including George Romney (1734–1802), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) and Reynolds.
The first portrait Reynolds painted of Mary, which shows her in a stylish dress and hat that echo those worn by Hélène Fourment (1614–1673) in her portrait by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), dates to 1782 and is now at Waddesdon Manor.
Reynolds’s portrait of Mary in the Wallace Collection was probably painted about 1783. Though the artist’s sitters book for 1783 no longer exists, his book for 1784 reveals that he was finishing up the portrait in January that year, suggesting it was commissioned the previous year.
The dating of the painting coincides with an especially difficult period in her relationship with Tarleton. In 1783, Tarleton, to escape gambling debts, fled the country. Mary, heavily pregnant, attempted to pursue him to Dover with borrowed money that she hoped would pay off his creditors.
However, she suffered a miscarriage, which likely caused the stroke that partially paralysed her. Following this, she dedicated her life to writing prose and poetry, which was much praised by Reynolds, who became one of her closest friends.
His 1783 portrait of Mary is markedly different to the one he made in 1782. No longer is she depicted as a trend-setting socialite, but a jilted lover, who look out across the sea with downcast eyes, longing for her beloved Tarleton.
In her melancholy, Mary dresses in a simple white dress, decorated with a pink bow, her hair held in tight curls. The loose handling of the painting is typical of Reynolds’s work in the 1780s, and it appears that the upper part of the painting is more worked up than the bottom half.
A similar uncompleted portrait of Mary by Reynolds is in the Yale Center for British Art, which was painted after the Wallace Collection portrait. Reputedly, the artist felt he had not succeeded in capturing the beauty of Mary in his paintings of her, which might explain why these two works appear unfinished.
X-rays have shown that Reynolds made a number of changes to the Wallace Collection portrait while he was working on it. Originally, Mary rested her chin on her raised right arm, creating a more obviously contemplative scene.
This arrangement might have been derived from Paolo Veronese’s (1528–1588) The Dream of St Helena, which portrays a woman in a similar position. Reynolds would have known of the painting as it was reproduced in prints.
The portrait remained in Reynolds possession until his death, but, nonetheless, Mary seems to have been a great admirer of it. She may have chosen the work as the frontispiece to a volume of her poems, and it almost certainly inspired a passage in her memoires.
After Reynolds, the painting belonged to a succession of owners, including the Prince of Wales and General Edmund Phipps (1760–1837), before being bought at auction by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870), with the help of his agent, Samuel Mawson (1793–1862).
Text adapted from Davis, L., 'Mrs Mary Robinson ('Perdita')', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 11.