Speaking in front of a crowd of 100 at the Yale Center for British Art on Tuesday, art historian Mark Hallett discussed mythological elements and ideals of femininity in Joshua Reynolds’ paintings.
As part of the release of his new book titled “Reynolds: Portraiture in Action,” Hallett, who specializes in British art from 1650 to 1850, analyzed three paintings of women by Reynolds. The three portraits, painted between 1761 and 1764, all showed aristocratic women as young maidens placed in a mythologically charged setting, Hallett said. Combining his analysis of the paintings with poems and plays that informed Reynolds’ art, Hallett presented such portraits as public spectacles that defined personal reputation and feminine virtues in the Georgian world of the British elite.
“These are pictures which really tell a story,” said Hallett, who serves as director of studies for the Paul Mellon Centre in London, a sister institution to the Yale Center for British Art.
Beginning with a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Keppel, Hallett spoke about the tension between modesty and eroticism. Keppel, a bridesmaid to the wedding of King George III, was portrayed as embodying the ideal of a woman on the edge of maturity, Hallett said. The presence of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, suggests “tenderness and sexual expectation,” while her black servant was a source of familiarity, Hallett added.
The second portrait discussed in the lecture showed Lady Sarah Lennox, also a bridesmaid, capture as she pours libations into a tripod to the three Graces. A companion piece and mirror image of the painting of Elizabeth Keppel, the second portrait exhibits some of the same dynamics as the first painting, though in a more theatrical manner, Hallett said. Just as Lennox looked up to the divine Graces as embodiments of marriage, so the viewers looked up to Lennox as a symbol for the feminine ideal, Hallett added.
The last piece Hallett discussed was a portrait of another woman, Mrs. Hale. Whereas Hale points to a background of Dionysiac revelry, she also walks away from the scene, walking towards the viewer. Hallett noted the tension between sexual pleasure and feminine purity that animates the painting.
Hallett said he specifically chose to talk about portraiture of these three women because of their complex mythological aspects. As women at the time did not have a public role, Hallett said Reynolds deliberately placed them in a mythological context because “this was a way to put them in a much more animated setting.”
The audience at the lecture praised Hallett’s subtle analysis of the paintings through a historical and social lens. Kerstin Pahl, a Ph.D student in art history who came from Kings College in London to attend the lecture, said she particularly appreciated Hallett’s attention to detail and the complexity of his insights.
“I haven’t heard such in-depth analysis,” Pahl said.
Mark Hallett became Director of Studies of the Paul Mellon Centre in 2012.