Date: After 1773
Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 76.1 x 63.1 cm
Inv. no. P40
On the streets of 18th-century London, strawberry sellers were a common sight. Frequently depicted in art as women, the strawberry seller in this painting by Reynolds has instead been depicted as a young girl, who has traditionally been identified as the artist’s niece. This is very much in keeping with the contemporary fashion for paintings portraying saints, gods and urchins as infants, which were referred to as ‘fancy pictures’.
For this painting, it is possible Reynolds derived inspiration from the ‘fancy pictures’ of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), whose work he saw when he visited Paris in 1771. He might also have influenced by Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606–1669) paintings of young girls, particularly his popular Young Girl at a Window, which was in Paris for much of the 18th century (but is now at Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Dressed in a cream gown, pinkish turban and blue neck ribbon, while holding a basket overflowing with fruit, the girl appears in a woodland containing a rocky outcrop, rather than a more typical urban setting.
Reynolds may have chosen this arrangement to emphasise her isolation, a strong, direct light illuminating her against the backdrop. Though the golden-brown tones of the painting recall the work of Rembrandt, who Reynolds greatly admired, originally the colours would have been more varied.
Unpredictable red and yellow lake pigments would have rendered the original tone of the dress pink, but these have become unstable over time and faded, creating a now indistinct cream colour. The artist also used various glazes to give the painting a translucent effect. This mimicked the aged appearance of old master paintings, which Reynolds envisaged his work hanging alongside in galleries.
Though four versions of The Strawberry Girl were painted by Reynolds, only two are known to survive – this one at the Wallace Collection and another at Bowood House. The Wallace Collection example shows the girl with a heart-shaped face and a fringe that peeks out beneath her turban, whereas the Bowood example shows the girl with a narrower face and a tasselled turban, which conceals her fringe.
X-rays have revealed that the appearance of the girl in the Wallace Collection painting was originally much closer to that of the Bowood one, perhaps suggesting that it was a second version of the work, or even that it was painted in parallel to the Bowood example, with adjustments being made to its composition.
The Bowood painting was sold to the 1st Earl of Carysfort (1751–1828) in 1774, but it appears that the Wallace Collection painting was not intended for a specific individual, remaining in Reynolds own collection until his death.
Reynolds is known to have been particularly pleased with his creation of the Strawberry Girl image, commenting that ‘no man could ever produce more than about half-a-dozen really original works in his life…and that picture is one of mine’.
The 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870) was ‘extremely fond’ of Reynolds’s work and was always on the look out for masterpieces by the artist. Through his agent, Samuel Mawson (1793–1862), Hertford bought The Strawberry Girl in 1857 at the auction sale of Samuel Rogers, a renowned poet and art collector. In fact, he was so keen to have the work that he was reported in the Illustrated London News to have paid 42 times the original cost for it.
Text adapted from Davis, L., 'The Strawberry Girl', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 8.