'Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Duchess of Argyll' 1760

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792)

Oil on canvas, 238.5 x 147.5cm
Accession Number LL3126

Sir Joshua Reynolds 'Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Duchess of Argyll'

This portrait was shown at the first-ever Society of Artists exhibition held in London in 1760. It was clearly intended to display both his skill and his theory of portraiture.

Elizabeth Gunning was a famous Irish beauty, and had married the 6th Duke of Hamilton in 1752. Recently widowed at the time of this portrait, she was shortly to marry John Campbell, the future 5th Duke of Argyll. Reynolds portrays her in peeress’s robes, but the rest of her costume and her features are idealized, giving her something of the air of an antique sculpture.

The doves and the relief sculpture of the Judgement of Paris on the left are allusions to the goddess Venus. They are typical devices of Reynolds’s intellectual and elevated brand of portraiture.