In-depth Discussion: Joshua Reynolds

Joshua Reynolds. Mrs. Musters as “Hebe,” 1782. Oil on canvas. 94 x 58 1/4 in. Kenwood House, English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest (88028806). Photo courtesy American Federation of Arts.

Unlike Thomas Gainsborough, who loved current affairs and fashions, Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) was interested in using the past to elevate contemporary portraiture. (In fact, Reynolds and Gainsborough were rivals.)

Back then, the “highest” or most worthy types of painting were history or mythology paintings—those that told a legendary story, looked back to ancient Greek and Rome, and had a noble air about them. But those paintings didn’t make a lot of money—it was portraiture that paid an artist’s bills.

Reynolds loved history painting and decided to merge the two. His portraits placed young women in the role of goddesses and famous literary characters. In this way, he could paint mythical stories but still make money from his clients, who in turn must have been pleased to be shown as such powerful figures in history.

Here, he shows Mrs. Musters as Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth and cupbearer to Zeus, king of the gods. She faces towards us, offering the cup, as if we the viewer are Zeus himself.

Mrs. Musters’s life story was arguably just as interesting as that of the Greek gods. A beautiful young socialite, she was in love with a man named George Pitt, whom her parents would not let her marry (he was below her social standing). She was forced instead to marry John Musters, a military man who loved the country, and their marriage, though it lasted, was never a particularly happy one. In gossip articles at the time, she is always referred to as beautiful but sad, forced into a rural life with Musters rather than the exciting city life she craved.

You can see another portrait of Mrs. Musters by George Romney, another British portrait painter, in the exhibition, or below.

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Discussion Questions

  • If you could be shown as a character from a book, play, or myth, who would it be? Why?

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