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Thaïs

Artist or maker:
Reynolds, Joshua (b.1723, d.1792)
Date:
1781
exhibition date
Place of production:
London, England, United Kingdom
Medium:
oil on canvas
Type of object:
paintings
Accession number:
2556

Commentary

Joshua Reynolds turned this portrait of Emily Bertie Pott into a grand history painting by combining portraiture, classical literature and social comment. Thaïs famously encouraged Alexander the Great to burn the Palace of Persepolis. In the 18th century, she was associated with women like Emily, an infamous mistress of Charles Greville.

The subject was taken from Dryden's poem, 'Alexander's Feast' which reads: 'Thaïs led the Way / To light him to his Prey / And, like another Helen, fir'd another Troy'. Thaïs was an Athenian courtesan who accompanied Alexander the Great on campaign to invade Persia. She is reputed to have persuaded him to set fire to the Palace of Persepolis in 331 BCE. Historians believe that the Greeks burned this ancient city renowned for its learning in revenge for the burning of the Acropolis in Athens that happened during the Second Hellenic-Persian War. Others interpreted the burning city as a sign of Alexander's passion for Thaïs. Reynolds depicted Thaïs in a very dramatic pose. It is perhaps taken from an ancient Greek or Roman figure of something like a Bacchante, a wild woman full of destructive energy.

Although a respectable history painting with learned overtones, the painting had more scandalous meanings when it was made.The sitter is reputed to be a lady called Emily, who went by various surnames. It has recently been suggested that the sitter is Emma Hamilton, but it is in fact a woman known as Emily Bertie Pott, whose probable portrait by George Romney hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (58.102.2).

It was paid for by one of Emily's admirers Charles Greville, the son of the Earl of Warwick, who probably commissioned it as a portrait. Soon after it was begun, Greville and Emily parted company, and she became the mistress of a man called Bob Pott who worked for the East India Company. Emily accompanied him on a voyage to India, but died just before reaching her destination in Spring 1781.

When the painting was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781, one contemporary argued that the painter took offence at Emily's inability to pay and satirically showed her setting fire to the Temple of Chastity, commenting on her standing as a courtesan. Greville finally paid Reynolds for the portrait in 1786 but sold it soon after to Wilbraham Tollemache, an enthusiastic patron of both Reynolds and Gainsborough. Several of Reynolds's supporters told the press that the story about Emily was wrong, however it seems likely that Reynolds wanted people to associate his painting with women like Emily as the name Thaïs was used as a label for courtesans and mistresses at the time.

Ferdinand de Rothschild purchased the painting around 1888 along with the painting of Lady Jane Halliday (acc. no. 2305). Both paintings show women in turbulent poses, and Ferdinand may have originally planned to hang them together. With the construction of the Morning Room, completed in 1891, the painting was positioned above the fireplace. Ferdinand may have appreciated the humour and irony of having a painting of a beautiful lady setting fire to a great ancient civilisation and its wealth of learning, in a room where he intended to display the majority of his own treasure trove of beautiful books.

Phillippa Plock, 2011

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
2293 x 1448
Signature & date:
not signed or dated
Inscriptions:
no 2
Inscription
on verso, upper stretcher, pencil
Labels:
8
Label
on verso, round blue label, handwritten

F. Reedham / [Liner?]
Label
on verso, upper centre on vertical stretcher

History

Provenance:
Commissioned by Charles Greville (b.1749, d.1809), paid for in 1786; bought from Greville probably in 1787 by Wilbraham Tollemache, 6th Earl of Dysart (b.1739, d.1821); inherited by his nephew Admiral John Richard Delap Tollemache (b.1772, d.1837); by descent to his son John Tollemache, 1st Baron Tollemache of Helmingham (b.1805, d.1890); bought by Wertheimer from Baron Tollemache at Peckforton Castle in 1888; bought from Wertheimer probably in 1888 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (b.1839, d.1898); inherited by his sister Alice de Rothschild (b.1847, d.1922); inherited by her great-nephew James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust) in 1957.
Exhibition history:
Royal Academy Exhibition, London, 1781, no. 10 as 'Thais'

British Institute Exhibition, London, 1817, no. 78, lent by the Earl of Dysart

London: Suffolk Street, 1833, no. 101, lent by Admiral Tollemache

Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester, 1857, no. 118, lent by J. [John, 1st Baron] Tollemache

Spencer House, London, 1991
Collection:
Waddesdon (National Trust)
Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957

Bibliography

Bibliography

Anon; The Ear Wig, or An Old Woman's remarks on the Present Exhibition of Pictures of the Royal Academy; London; [n. pub.]; 1781; pp. 5-6.
James Northcote; The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 2 vols; London; Henry Colburn Publishers; 1819; vol. 11, p. 120.
C R Leslie, T. Taylor; The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 2 vols; London; John Murray; 1865; vol. 2, pp. 321-22, 325, n. 2.
E. A. Hamilton; A Catalogue Raisonné of the Engraved Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds; London; Colnaghi & Co.; 1884; p. 126.
Algernon Graves, William Vine Cronin; A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds; 4 vols; London; Henry Graves; 1899-1901; vol 2, pp. 762-63.
Fanny Burney (known after her marriage as Madame d'Arblay); Diary and letters of Madame d'Arblay Vol 1, (1778-1840); London; Macmillan & Co Ltd; 1904; p. 466.
Ellis Waterhouse; Reynolds; London; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd.,; 1941; pl. 223.
Sir Francis Watson, The Art Collections at Waddesdon Manor I: The Paintings, Apollo, 69, June 1959, 172-182; p. 175, fig. 7.
Ellis Waterhouse, The English Pictures at Waddesdon Manor, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 54, August 1959, 49-56; p. 55, fig. 6.
Peter Quennell; The Prodigal Rake. Memoirs of William Hickey; New York; E. P. Dutton; 1962; pp. 251-257.
Ellis Waterhouse, Anthony Blunt; Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Fribourg; Office du Livre, The National Trust; 1967; pp. 92-94, cat. 33.
Malcolm Cormack, The Ledgers of Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Walpole Society, 42, 1968-1970, 105-69; p. 153.
Nicholas Penny, The society of Reynolds; Joshua Reynolds, an 18th century painter, FMR Magazine (Franco Maria Ricci), February 1986, 145-end; p. 145, ill.
Nicholas Penny; Reynolds; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 16 January - 31 March 1986; London; Royal Academy of Arts; 1986; pp. 295-96.
Andrea G. Pearson, Gilbert Stuart's The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) and Henry Raeburn's The Reverend Robert Walker, D.D., Skating on Duddingston Loch: A Study of Sources, Rutgers Art Review, 8, 1987, 55-70; pp. 55-70.
Martin Postle, Reynolds, Shaftesbury, Van Dyck and Dobson: Sources for Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, Apollo, 132, 1990, 306-11; pp. 306-11.
Andrew Wilton; The Swagger Portrait: Grand Manner Portraiture in Britain From Van Dyck to Augustus John; Tate Gallery, London, 14 October 1992 - 10 January 1993; London; The Tate Gallery Publications; 1992; p. 134.
Martin Postle, Reynolds's Portraits at Waddesdon Manor: Painting for Posterity, Apollo, 139, 1994, 19-33; p. 23, fig. 2.
Martin Postle; Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press; 1995; pp. 44-48, 192, 312, 321.
Marcia Pointon; Strategies for Showing: Women, Possession and Representation in Visual Culture. 1665 - 1800; Oxford; Oxford University Press; 1997; pp. 211-215, pl. 46.
Stephanie Tasch; Studien zum weiblichen Rollenporträt in England von Anthonis van Dyck bis Joshua Reynolds; Weimar; Verlagll. Datenbank fuer Geisteswisswenchafter; 1999; p. 364, fig. 86.
David Mannings, Martin Postle; Sir Joshua Reynolds: a Complete Catalogue of his Paintings; 2 vols; London; Yale University Press; 2000; vol. 1, pp. 566-567, no. 2167, fig. 1705, p. 135.
Robyn Asleson, Shelley Bennett; British Painting at The Huntington; New Haven; Yale University Press; 2001; p. 333, fig. 123; discussed under Reynolds, 'Diana (Sackville) Viscountess Crosbie', inv. no. 23.13 (similar pose).
Alex Kidson; George Romney 1734-1802; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 8 February - 21 April 2002; National Portrait Gallery, London, 30 May - 18 August 2002; Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, 15 September - 1 December 2002; London; National Portrait Gallery Publications; 2002; pp. 167-168, fig. 52.
Martin Postle; "Painted Women": Reynolds and the Cult of the Courtesan; Robyn Asleson, Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture 1776-1812, London, Yale University Press, 2003; 22-55; pp. 43-45, pl. 4.
Katie Hickman; Courtesans; London; Harper Collins Publishers; 2003; p. 236.
Julius Bryant; Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest; New Haven; Yale University Press; 2003; p. 357.
Les collections exceptionnelles des Rothschild: Waddesdon Manor (Hors-série de l'Estampille/l'Objet d'Art, No. 14); Dijon; Éditions Faton; 2004; pp. 22-29.
Martin Postle; Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity; Tate Britain, London,26 May - 18 September 2005; Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara, 13 February - 1 May 2005; London; Tate Publishing; 2005; p. 205.
Kate Williams; England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton; London; Hutchinson, The Random House Group Ltd; 2006; pp. 51-52; wrongly identifies sitter as Emma Hamilton.
Katherine Baetjer; British Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum; New York; Yale University Press; 2009; p. 128.
Robyn Asleson; Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture 1776-1812; London; Yale University Press; 2003; p. x, fig. IV.
Iris Wien; Joshua Reynolds: Mythos und Metapher; Munich; Wilhelm Fink Verlag; 2009; p. 354, fig. 102.
Faramerz Dabhoiwala; The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution; London; Allen Lane The Penguin Press (London), Oxford University Press; 2011; p. 356, pl. 12.
Mark Hallett; Joshua Reynolds: Portraiture in Action; New Haven; Yale University Press; 2014; pp. 347-350, fig. 335.

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