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A Lady and Her Children Relieving a Cottager

William Redmore Bigg, English, 1755 - 1828

Made in Great Britain, Europe


Oil on canvas

29 5/8 x 35 5/8 inches (75.2 x 90.5 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 280, European Art 1500-1850, second floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harald Paumgarten, 1947

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

    Apart, perhaps, from Chastity, only two virtues seem to have been regularly celebrated by English painters of moralizing genre from Hogarth (1697-1764) to Morland (1763-1804): Industry1 and Charity. William Redmore Bigg's Woman and Her Children Relieving a Distressed Cottager, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1781, is among the earliest paintings to illustrate the second of these virtues.

    As in Greuze's La Dame Bienfaisante, published in Massard's engraving of 1778 (J. Massard after Jean Baptiste Greuze {1725-1805} La Dame Bienfaisante, 1778, line engraving, 21 1/4 x 24 3/4” {54 x 63 cm.}, London, British Museum) Bigg's mother teaches her two children to be charitable to one less fortunate than they: in this case to a poor, red-haired (perhaps Irish) cottager and her baby. The duties of the upper classes are thus recognized, but so are the obligations of the lower--for the poor cottager is not sitting by her doorstep2 but kneeling in grateful appreciation for the money taken from the hands of the younger child. We are left in no doubt about the relative stations of the donor and the recipient, for the lady is clearly mistress of the great house and park seen in the distance, and perhaps the owner of the black servant at the left who carries her cloak and parasol. That this confrontation with poverty is not only heartrending but also slightly frightening to the smaller child is underscored by the gentle push she receives from her mother and the alarm of the barking spaniel in the foreground.

    Nevertheless, the whole is far from realistic, and we should perhaps compare the artist's choice of a trivial domestic situation, his interest in every detail of the fashionable clothing of the rich lady and her children, to a post-rococo tradition developing in France in this decade, exemplified by the paintings of Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837). On another level, the decorative intent of the picture is underscored not so much in the loving description of the bustles and bonnets and sashes of the rich family, or the execution of the painting in tones of silver, green, and lilac, as it is in the unnaturally clean and tidy look of the peasant and her child. John Barrell points out that this way of looking (or not looking) at the poor by English artists of the late eighteenth century is precisely the element that sold prints after their pictures. He also calls attention to the "embarrassing paradox at the centre of the late eighteenth-century attempt to define the image of the deserving poor ... that [those] who need the least help, will attract the most."3 Barrell quotes the writer of religious tracts Hannah More (1745-1833), who wrote that it is a ''common mistake, that a beggarly-looking cottage, and filthy-ragged children'' raise most compassion "for it is neatness, housewifery, and a decent appearance, which draws the kindness of the rich and charitable, while they turn away disgusted from filth and laziness."4

    The theme of Charity Relieving Distress was popular in English painting through the 1780s and then developed in the nineteenth century into one of the most common forms of genre painting, revived in Victorian times by an art-buying public influenced by the evangelical cast of Victorian religion which, as Ruskin in all his writings demonstrates, insisted on finding moral instruction in works of art. Eighteenth-century artists who worked the theme include Bigg's teacher Edward Penny (1714-1791) in The Generosity of Johnny Pearmain (exhibited R.A. 1782, no. 30, 36 x 31", New Haven, Yale Center for British Art); Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Charity Relieving Distress (1784, 39 x 30'', Sir Francis Cassel, Bart. Collection); and George Morland, The Benevolent Lady (E. I. Dumee after George Morland {1763-1804}, The Benevolent Lady, 1788, stipple engraving, 9 5/8 x 8 3/8" {24 x 21 cm.}. Published: February 1, 1791). Perhaps the most famous and effective variation on the theme is William Mulready's (1786-1863) Train Up a Child (exhibited R.A. 1841, no. 109, oil on panel, 25 1/2 x 31", Sotheby's, November 27, 1984, lot 1,176 ). When Bigg's picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1781 the Ear-Wig called it "a sweet picture--Nature pursued with taste and real sentiment."5

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 25-27.

    1. See no. 57, Morland's Fruits of Early Industry and Economy.
    2. As, for example, in Morland's Happy Cottagers, no. 60.
    3. John Barrell. The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840. Cambridge, London, and New York, 1980, p. 76.
    4. Quoted by Barrell, 1980, p. 76.
    5. Ear-Wig, The Ear-Wig; Or an Old Woman's Remarks on the Present Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Academy. London, 1781, p.7, no. 18

    The Ear-Wig; Or an Old Woman's Remarks on the Present Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Academy. London, 1781, p. 7; "In the Saleroom," The Connoisseur, vol. 83 (February 1929), p. 115.


William Wilson; his sale, Murrell & Wilson, London, May 12, 1812 lot 65 [1]. Sold by W. Webb, Christie's, London, April 18, 1848, lot 134 to H.P. Sold by Miss M. Paine, Christie's, London, December 21, 1928, lot 65 to Colnaghi; Robinette; Mr and Mrs. Harald Paumgarten; gift to PMA, 1947. 1. According to a letter from Burton Fredericksen in the curatorial file.

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