It is probable that Sir Joshua Reynolds' interest in religion was tenuous, and even his Holy Family
in the Tate Gallery, for all that it aroused a great deal of enthusiasm when it was painted, is treated in the spirit of domestic genre. It is best to consider his various versions of the Child Baptist in the Wilderness
as belonging to the class which he himself called “fancy pictures.” These are studies of youthful models, sometimes given dignity by being treated in the style of one of the old masters. In the case of the unusually lively and fresh study of the Child Baptist
recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts,1
the style aped is that of Bolognese classicism. It could well be that the model may have been such a picture as the Guido Reni of the same subject which was once an ornament of The Minneapolis Institute.The idea of a child portrait in the guise of the young St. John seems to have begun with the portrait of Master Wynn2
in that role, seated near a placid lamb, in a not very forbidding woodland landscape, collecting water in a rustic cup as it flows from the rock. This was engraved by Dean in 1776, and, in the same year, Reynolds exhibited at the Royal Academy (243) a picture simply titled St. John.
It has been generally accepted (almost certainly correctly, although it cannot be proved), that this is the picture which appears in Sir Joshua's account book under the date April 26th 1776, “Lord Granby for a picture of St. John £105.0.0,” and it is pretty certain that the design was roughly the same as that of the picture now at Minneapolis. It is also pretty certain (although it is unaccountably missing from the printed list) that this picture perished in the fire at Belvoir Castle in 1816.In the various sales of the contents of Reynolds' studio after his death, two pictures of St. John appeared in the 1796 sale, the more expensive of which can be shown to be that now in the Wallace Collection,3
which is of the same general design as the Minneapolis picture, but has been given a somewhat “Rembrandtesque” finish, with the outlines of the figure and the drapery disagreeably smudged and the face considerably “idealized.” But in the final sale on May 26, 1821, appear two pictures which have been unaccountably omitted from Graves and Cronin's Catalogue: “(33) Study for the infant St. John. 10 guineas: bt. Garrard: and (33a) St. John, 2'nd study. 15/-: bt Wansey.” It is at least highly probable that the Minneapolis picture is the former of these although nothing certain is known about it before its appearance in the Cook Collection at Richmond about 1900. It had then been treated in a rather unkind manner: the unfinished cross in the boy's left hand had been extended to carry a scroll (such as appears in the Wallace Collection picture), and the lamb—perhaps to avoid the slightly amusing effect of a duet with the boy—had been repainted to a close-mouthed, rabbit looking animal which faced the other way. Now that this nonsense has been removed, we can see in the picture a lively study from a (probably) cockney model whom Reynolds had encountered in the street and recognized as a possible St. John in the Wilderness. We are reminded of what Northcote told Leslie,4
that it was Sir Joshua's custom “on meeting a picturesque beggar in the street,—man, woman, or child—to send him or her to his house, to wait his leisure in a lower apartment: and in the intervals between his appointments he would order one of them into his painting-room to sit for a fancy picture. . . Northcote, who sat at work in the next room, would often hear the voice of a child, ‘Sir,—Sir,—I'm tired.’ There would be a little movement, another half hour would pass, and then the plaintive repetition, ‘Sir,—I'm tired.’” Perhaps this is why the Minneapolis picture got no further and why we enjoy it rather more than we do the version worked-up in the studio, which is in the Wallace Collection in London.Ellis K. Waterhouse
is Barber Professor of Fine Arts and Director of the Barber Institute of the University of Birmingham. His books include El Greco's Italian Period
(1958), Italian Baroque Painting
(1962), and The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor: Paintings
Referenced Work of Art
- 68.18. The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund. Oil on canvas, 50 1/2” x 39 1/2”. First recorded in the collection of Sir Francis Cook, Bart., at Richmond about 1900. Cook Catalogue, Vol. III (1915), No. 410. Cook sale, Sotheby's, June 25, 1958 (68); bought Major Gribble; Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, July 15, 1964 (120); bought Weitzner.
- Waterhouse, Reynolds, illus., p. 161.
- Waterhouse, Reynolds, illus. fig. a, p. 176
- C. R. Leslie and Tom Taylor, The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, I (1865), p. 358.
- Sir Joshua Reynolds. English, 1723-1793. The Child Baptist in the Wilderness, ca. 1776. Oil on canvas, 50 1/2” x 39 1/2”. The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund, 68.18.