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Portrait of Lady Mary O'Brien, later Countess of Orkney

Sir Joshua Reynolds, English, 1723 - 1792

Made in England, Europe

c. 1772

Oil on canvas

50 x 40 1/8 inches (127 x 101.9 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Donner, 1948

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Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Lady Mary O'Brien was the only surviving daughter of Murrough O'Brien, 5th Earl of Inchiquin, created Marquess of Thomond in 1801. Her mother was the 2nd Countess of Orkney, a title Mary inherited on her mother's death in 1790. She was born on September 4, 1755, and married on December 21, 1777, Hon. Thomas Fitzmaurice, of Llewenni Hall, county Denbigh, Ireland (1742-1793), a second son of John, Earl of Shelburne, and brother of the 1st Marquis of Lansdowne. According to his former schoolmate Edmund Malone (Reynolds's first biographer), Fitzmaurice was "a light headed foolish Boy."1 Mary died on December 30, 1831, having borne one son, John Hamilton Fitzmaurice, Viscount Kirkwall (1778-1820). Mary's father married Sir Joshua Reynolds's niece and heir, Mary Palmer, as his second wife, who accordingly became the Marchioness of Thomond and stepmother to Mary.

    Although baptized Mary, she was called Nelly at home to distinguish her from her mother, also Mary. Even in the eighteenth century, in Henry Bromley's Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits (London, 1793), the sitter in our picture was confused with another, more famous--or rather more notorious--Nelly, Nelly O'Brien, the beautiful courtesan whom Sir Joshua frequently painted.2 And throughout the nineteenth century the picture was exhibited under the title Nelly O'Brien.

    Although we know little about Lady Mary's life or personality from written documents, Reynolds's portrait contrives to tell us a great deal about her--not, as might be the case in a portrait by another artist, by revealing her character through a look, a smile, a turn of the head, or the strength of the face itself, but through costume, props, landscape, and pose. These tell us about her position in the world, her taste, and most important, about how she viewed herself. As Lady Mary was not married at the time the portrait was painted, and the painting was immediately engraved, possibly a covert function of the portrait was to advertise the sitter's charms to eligible young men.

    Reynolds shows Lady Mary seated in profile to the left, her right elbow resting on a vase, her right hand propping up her chin, her left arm tucked into the elbow of her bent right arm, looking off into the distance at three poplar trees. The pose is an adaptation in reverse of a figure on a Roman bas-relief in the Musei Capitolini (Palazzo dei Conservatori), Rome, The Conquered Province (Weeping Dacia) (marble, height 47 1/4" {120 cm.}, Rome, Musei Capitolini, Palazzo dei Conservatori) the pose of which, when it turns up in eighteenth-century paintings (Gainsborough's {1727-1788} Girl with Pigs, 1782, 49 1/2 x 58 1/2", Yorkshire, Castle Howard), suggested melancholy. Classically draped female figures resting against urns were frequently found on mourning rings or funerary monuments at this period (see Thomas Banks's [1735-1805] monument to Dean William Smith, 1787, Chester Cathedral).3

    The pose and the urn suggest, at first glance, that we are looking at a lady in mourning; and if, as is the case here, no immediate reason can be cited for her sadness--the death of a parent, a husband, a lover--we should bear in mind that in paintings and sculpture by artists as different as Greuze (1725-1805) (Young Girl Crying Over the Death of Her Bird, oil on panel, 26 3/4 x 21 1/2", Paris, Louvre) and Thomas Banks (Monument to a Robin Redbreast, 1803, Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales) young ladies of feeling were shown mourning the death of pet robins or sparrows. But there is no reason to be literal in the case of Lady Mary; rather, she chose to be painted as a lady of "sensibility," that precursor to the romantic mentality in which the feelings of the heart were held sacred, and indeed, as an antidote to an age obsessed with reason, tended and cultivated to a pitch that seems extravagant to twentieth-century minds.4 Like Mrs. Robinson in Reynolds's own Perdita (1784, 29 x 24 1/4", London, Wallace Collection), where the sitter looks toward the horizon in much the same way as the sitter in this portrait, Lady Mary is supposed to manifest a fashionable touch of melancholy, a sincerity quite different from a lady who would dress up, powder her hair, and face the artist head on for her portrait. Melancholy was, of course, a la mode at this date, not only in art but in poetry, garden design, the cult of ruins, and in novels.

    It is possible that Mary's pose and particularly the inclusion of poplar trees in the distance subtly refer to a character in contemporary literature, Laurence Sterne's (1713-1768) Maria, who is described in his Sentimental Journey, which was published in 1768 and immediately became a best seller. In that book the character Yorick meets a peasant girl named Maria by the roadside outside Moulins, "sitting under a popular--She was sitting with her elbow in her lap, and her head leaning on one side within her hand. . . She was dress'd in white ... her hair hung loose."5 Sentimental Journey was one of the first English novels of sensibility, and one that Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) would turn to in 1774 as a source for his Captive (40 x 50", Derby, Derby Museum and Art Gallery) and again in 1777 for the first of his two versions of Maria (63 x 45 1/2" , Great Britain, private collection).6 Wright's Maria makes a particularly interesting comparison with Reynolds's portrait because in it he depicted the heroine seated in the Dacia pose chosen by Reynolds for Mary O'Brien, although in reverse. Furthermore, Wright's maiden wears her hair in a coiffure so nearly like Lady Mary's that we might well believe he knew the Reynolds or a print from it. Ironically, Wright's Maria is not seated under poplar trees as she should be (and as she is in the Reynolds), although she is dressed entirely in white, which Lady Mary is not. But then Wright was illustrating a story, while Reynolds merely added an allusion to a contemporary heroine of fiction by way of adding another level of meaning to an already richly suggestive portrait. Robert Moore made this point in his article on Reynolds's method of characterization: "The most important ... of Reynolds's modes of exploring character and individualizing portraiture, [is] his appropriation of some pose or fiction from either literature or art that will simultaneously illustrate something about the sitter and lend something dramatic or imaginative to the painting."7

    But whatever else Reynolds tells us about Lady Mary, he does not allow us to mistake her for anyone other than a respectable scion of the upper classes: a great swag of curtain, a column, the huge urn convey more than a little information about the world of Adam and Chambers houses, of security and established values, to which the sitter was born and in which she moved. Her dress, halfway between a frock of the 1770s and a Roman toga, leaves no doubt that her country and class were the inheritors of the Roman Empire and civilization. In addition, Reynolds put forward in the Seventh Discourse of 1776 a practical reason for this kind of vague costume: "He ... who in his practice of portrait-painting wishes to dignify his subject ... will not paint her in the modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is sufficient to destroy all dignity .... He ... dresses his figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, and preserves something of the modern for the sake of likeness."8

    The urn, ornamented at each side with the head of a lion holding a ring in its jaw and decorated on the body by another lion beneath a festoon, is copied from an engraving by Enea Vico (1520-1567), one of a series of fourteen vases after the antique (Vase with Lion Heads, 1543, engraving, courtesy of the British Museum, London).9 The Vico itself is a copy in reverse of a print of 1531 by Agostino Veneziano (active c. 1509-36).

    Waterhouse dated this portrait to 1774, while a date apparently on the frame when the picture was exhibited in London in 1867 reads 1773. Dixon's engraving (Smith, 1878, vol. 1, pp. 213-14, no. 26) is generally dated 1774, but this is only the inscribed state that was published on September 29 of that year by W. Wynne Ryland. An earlier state, with an uncleaned edge before the inscription, in scratched letters, reads "Sr Joshua Reynolds pinxt J Dixon Fecit 1772" (an impression in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, John Dixon {1740-c. 1780} after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772, mezzotint, 19 1/8 x 14" {48.6 x 35.5 cm.}, courtesy of the Fitzwiliam Museum, Cambridge), giving us a date before which the portrait must have been completed. This earliest known state was also recorded by C. E. Russell and Hamilton.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 288-291.

    1. For Malone's opinion of Fitzmaurice, see Farington Diary, [1795], February 13, 1796. For Lady Mary O'Brien, see Scots Peerage, 1904-14, vol. 6, pp. 580-81.
    2. Henry Bromley. A Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits. London, 1793, p. 431, s.v. "Nelly O'Brien, Courtezan."
    3. Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900. New Haven and London, 1981, pp. 193-94, fig. 100. Jonathan Richardson (Sr. and Jr.), An Account of Some of the Statues, Bas-reliefs, Drawings aud Pictures in Italy, Etc., 2nd ed. (London, 1754), p. 114, described the relief as "incomparable." In the 1750s the sculpture was incorporated in portraits by Batoni (1708-1787) and in views by Panini (c. 1692-1765/8) and was also drawn by Richard Wilson (1713-1782) (see Denys Sutton, ed. An Italian Sketchbook by Richard Wilson, R.A., London, 1968, vol. 1, repro. p. 7, vol. 2, pp. 29-50). By the time Reynolds used the pose for Lady Mary O'Brien, Dacia was being used in England for jewelry. See A Catalogue of Cameos, Intaglios, Medals and Bas-reliefs, with a General Account of Vases and Other Ornaments after the Antique Made by Wedgewood and Bentley and Sold in Their Rooms in Great Newport Street, London (London, 1773), p. 11 (Class 1 Cameos and Intaglios), no. 1055, "A Conquered province; in Carnelian." Reynolds also used this pose for his Hon. Mrs. Spencer (Contemplation) (35 1/2 x 28 1/2", Christie's, March 3, 1924, lot 143), engraved by R. H. Parkes, published 1864.
    4. For a discussion of sensibilité in France, see Anita Brookner, Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon (London, 1972), chaps. 1-3.
    5. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick (London, 1768), vol. 2, p. 171
    6. For the second version see Benedict Nicolson. Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light., London, 1968, vol. 1, no. 237, also sec vol. 1, pp. 150-151.
    7. Moore, 1967, p. 346.
    8. Robert R. Wark, ed. Sir Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art. San Marino, California, 1959, p. 140.
    9. Adam Bartsch. Le Peintre Graveur. 21 vols. Vienna, 1803-21., vol. 15, p. 350, no. 420; Walter L Strauss, ed., The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 30, ed. John Spike (New York, 1985), repro. p. 259. See also Timothy Clifford, "Polidoro and English Design," The Connoisseur, vol. 192 (August 1976), p. 291 n. 20.

    Henry Bromley. A Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits. London, 1793, p. 431 (as "Nelly O'Brien, Courtezan"); Hodgson and Graves. Engravings from the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. 3 vols. London, 1836, vol. 2, p. 58 (as "Miss Nelly O'Brien"); William Cotton. A Catalogue of the Portraits Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knt., P.H.A.: Compiled from His Autograph Memorandum Books, and from Printed Catalogues, &c. London, 1857, p. 56; Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor. Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with Notices of Some of His Contemporaries. 2 vols. London, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 188-89, n. 7; John Chaloner Smith. British Mezzotinto Portraits. 4 vols. London, 1883, vol. 1, pp. 213-14, no. 26; Algernon Graves and William Vine Cronin. A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A. 4 vols. London, 1899-1901, vol. 2, pp. 701-2; Walter Armstrong. Sir Joshua Reynolds, First President of the Royal Academy. London and New York, 1900, p. 222; Freeman O'Donoghue. Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits ... in the British Museum. 6 vols. London, 1908-25, vol. 3, p. 378 (listed under Orkney, Mary O'Brien); Ellis K. Waterhouse. Reynolds. London, 1941, pp. 64-65; Allen Staley. "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma Tadema." Apollo, n.s., vol. 100 (July 1974), p. 35; Timothy Clifford, "Polidoro and English Design," The Connoisseur, vol. 192 (August 1976), p. 291 n. 20.

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