Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Today I am returning to portraiture and one of the greatest English portrait painters, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  His works were in a style which came from classical art and was often referred to as the Grand Manner which depended on idealization of the imperfect.  Reynolds himself preferred the term Grand Style which referred more to history painting and in his series of lectures, entitled Discourses of Art, he maintained that artists should perceive their subjects through generalisation and idealization rather than simply copying the sitter.  In the course of his lecture he expanded such thoughts, saying:

“…..How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact, may be seen in the cartoons of Raffaelle.   In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving yet we are expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable appearance; and of St. Paul in particular, we are told by himself, that his bodily presence was mean. Alexander is said to have been of a low stature: a painter ought not so to represent him. Agesilaus was low, lame, and of a mean appearance. None of these defects ought to appear in a piece of which he is the hero. In conformity to custom, I call this part of the art history painting; it ought to be called poetical, as in reality it is….”

Reynolds made a number of trips to Europe during which time he studied the foreign artistic techniques and by so doing was able to draw inspiration from them and it influenced how he shaped his own “English” paintings

My Daily Art Display featured painting;  Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress is a prime example of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Grand Style of painting.   Jane Baldwin was born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1763.  She was the third daughter of Margaret Icard and William Maltass, a Yorkshire man from Ripon who, along with his brother Henry, spent the early part of the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe and was one of the earliest Europeans to settle in Turkey.    He became a wealthy merchant who traded with the East through the Levant Company.  From an early age Jane was deemed an extraordinary beauty.  At the age of sixteen, still virtually a child, she married the prosperous George Baldwin, an extremely wealthy English merchant stationed in Alexandria, Egypt.  George Baldwin later became that country’s British Consul-General and the British Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Tehran.

In the painting we see the delectable nineteen-year old English beauty attired in a luxuriously brocaded emerald and gold striped caftan, sprigged with cherry-coloured flowers and is aggrandized by an ermine mantle.  We see her dark chestnut hair braided into multiple long strands.  She is wearing a white and pink silk turban, atop of which are a small bouquet of tea roses.   In the late eighteenth century it was very fashionable for ladies to wear Eastern style headdresses and was in a way highlighting Britain’s trading relationship with the Ottoman Empire.

Around her neck she wears a diamond waterfall necklace along with a gold chain and pendant.  Her ears are adorned with gold teardrop earrings.   She is seated on a red velvet divan which is studded with brass tacks around its base.  Her pose is somewhat both alluring and seductive as she sits cross-legged before us.  Her eyes are fixed upon an ancient gold coin of Smyrna, the inclusion of which was probably to remind us of the links between England and its Turkish trading partner.  The sitter seems lost in thought, unaware that she is the focus of attention of the artist and of course us, the viewers.  So did the artist manage this expression on his sitters face by just simply having her stare at the coin for hours on end?  In fact no he didn’t.  Jane Baldwin sat in the pose we see but at the time the artist was painting her portrait she was actually holding and reading a book of poems by Pietro Metastasio, the famed Italian poet and librettist.  So why not have her reading the book in this portrait instead of having her transfixed by the sight of a coin?  The reason is probably that Reynolds had been asked to have something in the painting which reflected the world of commerce, the very thing which had led to her family’s wealth.  It also is reminding us that different cultures are brought together through trade and on economic grounds.  For the sitter to be holding and reading a book of poems written by an Italian might lead the viewers to believe that cultures are brought together through the arts….. perish the thought that we believed that (even if we know it to be true)  !!!!!!!

Jane Baldwin wore the costume we see in the painting many times when she visited England including a ball given by the king.   She earned the sobriquet the “pretty Greek”  not because she was of Hellenic descent (she had no Eastern-European blood) but because she, having been born and raised in the Greek region of Western Turkey, identified with that community as her own.  This is one of Reynolds’ finest portraits and I will leave you with a passage from Jane Baldwin’s obituary notice from the 1839 (July to December) issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine which talks about the painting and the sitter’s views of the artist:

“…..It was during the first winter after her arrival in London (1781), that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the beautiful portrait of this lady which now enriches the Marquess of Lansdowne’s Gallery at Bowood. She is represented sitting on a sofa in the eastern fashion, contemplating a small object which she holds in her right hand.  She once told the writer that, when this portrait of her was made, she was lodging with her husband in the Temple; and that the trees which Sir Joshua has represented in the background were those in the Temple Gardens. At first she used to give the painter sittings in his study, but Reynolds could not satisfy himself with her resemblance; he made three attempts, which he successively defaced. Mrs. Baldwin could only remember, besides, that he took a prodigious quantity of snuff, and that his painting room smelled horribly. After a few hours she always grew restless and cross, which used to vex Reynolds, who did not know how to amuse her. He made his fourth and last sketch at the residence of the lady, and when she grew impatient suggested that she should take a book. She asked for Metastasio, and while reading it her portrait was made. Instead of a volume, Reynolds represented an ancient coin of Smyrna in Mrs. Baldwin’s band,—a circumstance, as she informed the writer, which was much quizzed and ridiculed at the time. Of this painting there exist several mezzotint engravings….”

“….. She travelled widely and lived in England for a considerable number of years, and was always admired for her intelligence and beauty. She was patronised by Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale, who remarked “I…hope to Obtain some favours from the new Ministry for my pretty Greca: could her Husband but gain the Embassy!  Oh I should not sleep for Pleasure. This pretty Greek as we call her, was born at Smyrna, & ran away with a Man whose Family had been some of Mr Thrale’s best Friends in the Borough; between Gratitude to him, and delight in her, for artlessness & Beauty; I have been led to interest myself no little towards protecting her, may my Fortune & Talents be ever devoted to Charity & Friendship! & may I have the Strength & Courage to despise them who would hinder its Current, by trying to make each other believe that its Source was only Desire!…”.

“…Mrs. Baldwin had many peculiarities, but they were of a less ambitious character: a singular iulirmity of temper, which estranged from her all but her immediate relatives, was perhaps her prevailing characteristic. She had survived her generation, and ended her days in a self-inflicted penurious seclusion,— the inconveniences of which were aggravated, of late years, by sickness and suffering….”

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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