Sir Joshua Reynolds has long been celebrated for his sensitive and sympathetic portraits of children. The Portrait of Master Hare presented here is a remarkable recovery, the prime version of one of the artist’s best known works in that genre. The sitter, Francis George Hare (1786-1842), is posed seated in a woodland setting, turned three-quarters as he gestures to the left. He sits before a tree that rises to his right and frames him from above, as the blue sky silhouettes his head, adorned with freely flowing blonde locks of hair. Of his dress Aileen Ribeiro has written, “He wears a white muslin frock (with black fastening) with a sash, similar to the costume worn by small girls. Boys were not generally put into breeches until they were about three or four years old, although this could take place as late as seven years old.” (A. Ribeiro, quoted in D. Mannings and N. Penny, ed., Reynolds, exh. cat., London, 1986, p. 318). In fact, Master Hare was only two-and-a-half years old when his portrait was painted; Mannings records several portrait sittings for him with Reynolds in 1788 and 1789 (op. cit., 2000, I, p. 242). If Master Hare’s clothing does not connote the subject’s gender, his pose manifestly does. Anja Müller has noted that “clear iconographic differentiation between the sexes of boys and girls could be inscribed into postures and gestures…. The commanding gesture of little Master Hare in Reynolds’ painting thus renders this child as equally unambiguously a boy as the child in the Age of Innocence [London, Tate Gallery] is clearly recognizable as a girl by her posture.” (A. Müller, Framing Children in Eighteenth Century Periodicals and Prints, 1689-1789, Farnham, 2009, p. 47).
Reynolds painted two autograph versions of Master Hare, the present portrait and another now in the Musée du Louvre, the gift of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild in 1905. While the present painting has remained in private hands since it was painted, the fame of the Paris painting has grown through exhibition and reproduction, and has come to be considered one of the archetypal images of British art. The two paintings differ slightly in compositional details, as well as in the characterization of the subject, who seems sweeter and more feminine in the Louvre version. Mannings, in his catalogue raisonné of Reynolds’s portraits, wrote that the present painting was “probably the first version of the composition” due to its “vigorous handling…so much livelier than the Louvre version,” which he considers a “contemporary variant…quite possibly by Reynolds himself.” (loc. cit.)
The provenance of the two portraits is somewhat complicated and not fully resolved. It would appear that each of the versions was painted for a sister of Georgina Shipley Hare, the mother of the sitter – the Louvre painting for Anna Maria Shipley, Lady Jones; the present portrait for Catherine Louisa Shipley. The three sisters were the daughters of the Rt. Rev. Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, and his wife Anna. They were close friends with Benjamin Franklin and hosted him at Twyford House, near Winchester, where he began to write his Autobiography. In fact Franklin maintained a correspondence with both Georgiana, Master Hare’s mother, and Catherine, this portrait’s owner, until his death.
Vignettes of the later life of Francis George Hare appear in the autobiography of his son, the writer and raconteur Augustus Hare (The Story of My Life, London, 1896). His education with a series of distinguished tutors on the Continent and later at Oxford, his serial formation and selling of libraries, his friendship with the poet Walter Savage Landor, his reputation as a brilliant conversationalist – these were contrasted with his lack of ambition, passion for fashionable dress, horses, and parties. A cousin wrote of him, “Wherever there is dissipation, there is Francis in its wake and its most ardent pursuer.” In 1828 he married Ann Frances Paul and the family divided its time between England and Italy. In 1842 the now Mister Hare died in Palermo at the age of fifty-six.
The Portrait of Master Hare had considerable celebrity from an early date. Two early engravings, probably based on the Louvre version, are known. A stipple etching by Robert Thew was issued by Josiah and Joshua Boydell in 1790, while a mezzotint was published by Samuel William Reynolds in 1835. Both the third state of Thew’s print and Reynolds’ mezzotint add the designation “Infancy” – an allegorical title that was as well appended to several painted copies of Master Hare. It may be that the manifest appeal of the image engendered its evolution from its origin as a depiction of a specific individual into its consideration as an emblem of Infancy. In this regard it may be considered the male pendant to Reynolds’ Age of Innocence (fig. 1), a portrait of a girl of like size and format – and one painted the same year as Master Hare – which also acquired its allegorical title and popularity posthumously.