Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in William Congreve’s “Love for Love”, 1771. Oil on canvas, 76.8 × 63.7 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.
In France the reinstitution of the Paris Salon led some English art commentators to question Britain’s standing in respect to the power and prosperity of the French art world. In August 1737, London’s Daily Post reviewed the exhibition of the Paris Salon at the Louvre:
What a discouragement it is to the ingenious men of Great Britain that we have no yearly prizes to reward their pains and application for the service of mankind; or publick honour to bestow on their services as in France! They might well complain that we don’t imitate the French in their best qualities, but take particular care to outdo them in their worst. Good painters, Engravers, and Statuaries are very useful men; they add to the capital stock as well as to the honour of the Country, besides the noble and instructing amusement which they afford.
The Post’s journalist clearly felt the need to persuade the British public of art’s usefulness and importance, and in 1768 George III founded the Royal Academy of Arts. Joshua Reynolds was its first president, and while both he and the Academy had their critics – notably William Blake and William Hazlitt – a professional society of painters, architects, sculptors and printmakers had been founded to promote ‘the arts of design’.
Instead of endeavouring to amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations, the genuine painter must endeavour to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse III, 1770
Sir Joshua Reynolds was an English portraitist who gained immense popularity with aristocratic English society. He was a welcome guest in the town and country houses of the elegant English elite and equally at home in intellectual circles. He counted Dr Johnson as a good friend. Both men shared a belief in the authority of art and in the rules of taste. After the founding of the Royal Academy, Reynolds delivered to its members and students his Discourses on Art, a series of fifteen lectures laying out the new institution’s policy and theory with specific reference to the training of young artists. In stark contrast to Hogarth’s xenophobia – of which Reynolds was outspoken in his disdain – Reynolds exhorted students to study the Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian. For him, grandeur and loftiness were the only aims appropriate to the pursuit of great art. Reynolds’s discourses were highly regarded and their author was the most influential painter in eighteenth-century England in raising the profile of British art both within and beyond Britain.
The actress Frances Abington, née Fanny Barton, was born and raised in the slums of Drury Lane before marrying one of the king’s trumpeters, James Abington, and becoming a starring member of the Drury Lane Company. Reynolds painted her portrait at least six times. In the above work, she is portrayed in character and seated in what would have been considered an undignified, suggestive pose, totally inappropriate for a lady. Her thumb strokes her lip, and she gazes thoughtfully and almost directly at the viewer. The peach silk and creamy lace of her gown accent the warmth in her cheeks and the smoothness of her complexion. The dog’s curly fur echoes the folds of her delicate lace cuffs and collar, which are boldly picked out against the background’s stark blackness. The background itself is divided: one-third of it is a stormy sky and the remaining two-thirds are flat and black and suggest the backdrop of a stage. The effect suggests a fusion of nature and the theatre, not unlike Hogarth’s Beggar’s Opera.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, An American's Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon's Legacy, An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students, by Lindsay Rothwell.