I n 1764 Sir Joshua Reynolds was commissioned by James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife to paint a portrait of his new wife Dorothea and the work has recently gone on long term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for display at Duff House, following arrangements negotiated by Sotheby’s Tax, Heritage & UK Museums department.
James Duff was an MP and one of the most powerful landowners in Scotland and she was the daughter of the 9th Earl of Caithness with a dowry of £40,000; it should have been a triumphant marriage, however sadly it proved to be an unhappy one.
In the portrait Dorothea stands alone in a sylvan glade, a model of serenity and femininity and it seems Reynolds reveals nothing of the marital tensions that were simmering as he painted Dorothea’s portrait. But that was his talent. Reality is nowhere to be seen in his version of Georgian England. All is pastoral, unsullied and unchanging. He aligns England’s elite with an Arcadian ideal in a style that was both traditional and strikingly modern.
Reynolds was one of the most popular and successful portrait painters of his day. In 1768 he co-founded the Royal Academy and was elected its first president. He painted in a high classical style, seeking to elevate portraiture as he sought to raise his own status. He painted not just for art’s sake but for publicity. His glamorous, sought-after portraits of aristocrats, courtesans, politicians, actresses and heroes jostled for space on the walls of the Academy and were widely circulated as prints, fodder for a burgeoning cult of celebrity.
A solitary figure in her portrait, Dorothea Duff glances aside as she leans against a tree, her simple, classical dress defining the contours of her body and her ermine-lined crimson cloak falling in folds on the ground beside her. Sunlight illuminates the unadorned alabaster of her skin and streams through the bosky depths behind her. The portrait is intimate in spite of its scale, one of the artist’s finest renderings of aristocratic informality and the feminine ideal.
The painting, which is in the collection of the Duke of Fife is now once again hanging in the dining room at Duff house in Aberdeenshire, the room where the painting originally hung after it was commissioned.
The work was recently unveiled in a ceremony where Felix Hale of Sotheby’s Tax, Heritage and UK Museums team gave a talk about the painting.
Anna Thomasson is a cultural historian and author of ‘A Curious Friendship’, she is currently working on her second book.