This striking portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Stanhope, née Falconer (or Faulkner), painted in four sittings held between 30 October and 10 November 1786, dates from a period during which Sir Joshua Reynolds was working at the height of his powers as a painter. Reynolds also completed a small oil sketch of the same composition, now lost (Mannings, op. cit., no. 1700). This picture was displayed at the 1787 summer exhibition held at the Royal Academy, of which Reynolds had been president since its foundation in 1768, in Somerset House. As one of thirteen portraits exhibited by the artist that year, it was given a privileged position in the main gallery; hung ‘on the line’, positioned at eye-level, thus guaranteeing it prominence in the busy floor-to-ceiling hang of the room. Indeed, its exact position is recorded in Johann Heinrich Ramberg’s famous engraving of the Prince of Wales’s visit to the exhibition that year, where the portrait can be seen hanging prominently on the left of the north wall of the gallery (fig. 1).
The sitter, Elizabeth Falconer, married the Hon. Henry Fitzroy Stanhope (1854-1828), a Captain in the 1st Foot regiment, and second son of William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington, in 1783. She was a celebrated beauty and renowned for her involvement with the artistic and literary circles of London society. As an intimate of Lady Elizabeth Craven, an amateur dramatist and woman of letters, she would have been acquainted with James Boswell and Samuel Johnson as well as Horace Walpole, who had helped to publish some of Lady Craven’s early works.
Mrs Stanhope is shown seated, her head just resting on her left hand; her right arm resting on a window seat. Behind her, a large red curtain is drawn back to reveal a stone balustrade with a landscape beyond. Though modishly dressed, her clothes and coiffure have been simplified from the standard fashions of the late eighteenth century. The fashion for adopting poses of this kind, here ‘Contemplation’, seems to have been a popular choice for portraits of young women during the late eighteenth century. The most famous example of these were the series of ‘Attitudes’ created of Emma, Lady Hamilton and recorded in a series of prints and drawings by George Romney.
The simplified dress of the sitter and highly effective limited colour palette interestingly seem to represent the theoretical views Reynolds held on art and painting. In a series of lectures given to the students of the Royal Academy at the annual Presentation of the Prizes between 1769 and 1790, the artist eloquently discussed his ideas on the fundamental principles of art and the ways in which the students should pursue their craft. In these Discourses, later published as a series of essays, Reynolds discussed the hierarchy of the schools and genres of painting and the aesthetic principles which directed his work. In the 3rd Discourse, delivered as a speech on 14 December 1770, he argued that beauty in painting rested in what he called the ‘great style’, whereby artists should ‘exhibit distinctly and with precision the general form of things’ without focus on irrelevancies (J. Reynolds and E.G. Johnson (ed.), Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses, Chicago, 1891, p. 96.). Beauty in art, Reynolds declared, was found in grand, simple and aesthetic forms. These principles seem, consequently, to be exemplified perfectly in his portrait of Mrs Stanhope.
The sitter’s pose, as Wind first noted in 1986, is taken almost directly from Reynolds’s famous 1784 portrait of the actress Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse (now San Marino, Huntington Library). Reynolds is said to have adapted it for this composition from Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, though the pose of Mrs Stanhope relates just as much to that of the Penitent Magdalene by Guido Reni (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antice) which he seems to have known from a print, given the reversed composition. Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse became one of the artist’s most revered works and was copied in Reynolds’s studio at least twice (see Munnings, op. cit., p. 415, nos. 1620 and 1621). In this picture, however, the dramatic pose is adapted to show more of the sitter’s face and is softened from the ‘heroic passion’ of Mrs Siddons into a ‘lyrical…charm’ (Wind, op. cit., p. 46).
The painterly style of this portrait marks something of a departure for the artist. Reynolds’s style became increasingly loose in his mature years and here the thick impasto of the paint seems to foreshadow the technique perfected by Thomas Lawrence, Reynolds’s successor and a direct rival for commissions towards the end of the artist’s life. Indeed, the 1787 Academy exhibition, where this picture was on display, was the first time Lawrence presented his work to the London public. His interest in the work of Reynolds is evidenced in a letter written to his friend and sitter during his early career in Bath, Mary Hartley, stating that ‘Sir Joshua certainly maintained his superiority over the rest’ that year. (M. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, New Haven and London, 2005, p. 69.).