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Major Work by Sir Joshua Reynolds at Sotheby’s
Thursday, June 3, 2004

Sir Joshua Reynolds Portrait of Mrs Baldwin

 LONDON, ENGLAND. - On Thursday July 1, 2004, Sotheby’s will offer for sale one of the most magnificent works by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 -1792) to come to auction in recent years. Painted in 1782 , at the height of Reynolds’ career, Portrait of Mrs Baldwin brings together all the qualities that define Reynolds’ oeuvre. A dazzling demonstration of his painterly skills, the picture is also testament to Reynolds’ remarkable ability to infuse his portraits with enormous imaginative appeal. Portrait of Mrs Baldwin depicts one of the most glamorous, widely-esteemed women of her day in extravagant Persian costume.

Rich, intelligent and extremely beautiful, Mrs Baldwin possessed all the feminine qualities that a Georgian gentleman could desire. In addition to her charm, she was also an exotic creature. Affectionately referred to by an admiring friend as "this pretty Greek", she was the daughter of an English merchant based in Smyrna, where she was born. Throughout her life, she travelled widely in the Levant and was fully familiar with the customs and languages that so intrigued her less adventurous European counterparts. At a relatively early age, she married George Baldwin, a rich Alexandrian merchant who later became British Consul-General in Egypt. Their marriage was not a particularly happy one, but the beautiful Mrs Baldwin had no lack of admirers to compensate. Widely travelled, she attracted admiration and gossip wherever she went. When she came to London, both The Prince of Wales and Dr Johnson fell immediately under her spell, and when she visited Vienna in 1780, the Emperor Joseph was so entranced with her beauty he commissioned a portrait bust of her.

In this striking portrait, Reynolds depicts Mrs Baldwin in oriental attire. In fact, the costume she is wearing is not entirely authentic - it is the fancy oriental dress she wore to a royal ball in 1782 - but it fits her spirit well. More than that, her costume spoke directly to the imagination of contemporary onlookers, who were captivated by the idea of the East - an idea that Mrs Baldwin and her costume seemed to represent so perfectly.

The beauty of the sitter, combined with the exotic ideas she represented, made Mrs Baldwin a perfect "trophy" for Reynolds. So proud was he, in fact, of his work - and so conscious, no doubt, of its huge commercial appeal - that he kept the portrait for himself. Unusually for such a grand picture, it was not a commissioned work. Rather, it was something Reynolds painted on his own initiative, and that he kept on the walls of his studio both for his own enjoyment and, most probably, because of the impression he anticipated such a work would make on prospective clients.

The picture’s subsequent provenance is of an equal distinction, which constitutes another major aspect of its importance and appeal. After Reynolds’ death, it was sold by his fellow Royal Academician, Richard Westall, to Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne. The Marquess was the son of the Prime Minister, Lord Shelburne, and was, like his father, one of the greatest connoisseurs of his age. One of his particular passions was the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and he put together a splendid group of paintings, of which Mrs Baldwin is the most spectacular. The picture has remained in the family ever since its purchase in 1813. In earlier years it hung at Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square in London, and latterly at the family’s country retreat at Bowood in Wiltshire. Its appearance at auction therefore presents an extraordinary opportunity to acquire a great historical portrait by one of the most famous artists of the 18th century directly from a great aristocratic English collection.


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