Date: About 1762–3
Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 126.3 x 101 cm
Inv. no. P38
Nelly O’Brien (died 1768) was a famous 18th-century courtesan and close friend of Reynolds. She became the mistress of the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke (1732–1787) and later the 8th Earl of Thanet (1733–1786), with whom she had at least one child.
Between 1760 and 1767, she sat frequently for Reynolds, sometimes even meeting him in a room at the Star and Garter pub in Pall Mall instead of at his studio. The familiarity between the two is apparent in this informal portrait, in which Nelly looks out of the canvas from a wooded landscape as if greeting a welcome companion.
Despite having a number of wealthy admirers, there is no record of a commissioner. This suggests that, given Nelly’s popularity, Reynolds painted the portrait speculatively, knowing it would attract the attention of exhibition-goers, as well as engravers looking to make prints.
The first payment relating to the painting in Reynolds’s accounts is in relation to a ‘Mr Simons’, who bought it for 36 guineas in 1772. Later, it passed through a succession of owners before being bought at auction by the 2nd Marquess of Hertford (1743–1822).
Reynolds likely made this painting around the same time he made another portrait of Nelly, which is now at the Hunterian Museum. It is probably one of these paintings that he exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762, but refused to include in the exhibition catalogue, presumably because of uncertainty about showing a portrait of a courtesan alongside respectable society figures.
Unlike the Hunterian portrait, which shows Nelly in a relatively plain white gown, the Wallace Collection portrait shows her wearing a highly fashionable Leghorn bonnet, trimmed with blue ribbon, a blue and white taffeta overdress with lace ruffles, a black shawl and pink quilted petticoat, along with a necklace resembling pearls. Nelly’s positioning, combined with her wide skirt, gives her pyramid-shaped form, at the centre of which a small Maltese dog sits on her lap.
Technical examination of the painting has shown the range of techniques Reynolds used to achieve its remarkable colours and textures. For example, he painted Nelly’s striped overdress, before painting her shawl over the top. He rendered the shawl’s delicate silk sleeves with thin layers of paint, while its ruffled sleeves are modelled using thickly applied paint and fine brushwork.
Expertly, Reynolds painted Nelly’s petticoat in solid pink and then added in darker and paler shades of the colour to create naturalistic shadowing between the quilting and fabric folds.
The virtuoso painting of Nelly’s clothes suggests Reynolds worked on those areas himself, rather than giving it to a drapery painter. This becomes particularly clear when compared to the relatively stiff brushwork seen on Mrs Elizabeth Carnac’s (1751–1780) dress, which was likely done by such an artist.
X-rays have confirmed that Reynolds made few alterations to the composition as he was working on it, suggesting he had a clear vision of what he wanted the painting to look like.
However, one change he did make was to the neckline of Nelly’s dress, which he made lower, allowing him to cast the shadowing caused by her bonnet more effectively across her chest. This heightened the play between light and shadow, an effect he admired in the work of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).
Text adapted from Davis, L., 'Nelly O'Brien', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 15.