Nelly O’Brien’s Smile (apologies to Mona Lisa)

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston 1 Comment

A staff post from Harriet Gaston, Communications Manager at The Hunterian.

This week in the office we have been mulling over a very difficult question: ‘If you had to select one item from The Hunterian collections as your favourite, what would it be?’

As a History of Art student at the University of Glasgow in the 1990s, I spent many a happy lunchtime avoiding the rain (and the queues in the Hub) looking at the paintings in the Hunterian Art Gallery. Now as Communications Manager at The Hunterian, I have the job of telling other people why they should come and see them (and, of course, the other fabulous items in our world class collections).

One of the benefits of studying History of Art at Glasgow is having an art gallery on your doorstep. Until that point, my main experience of major art works was either in a book or on the black and white photocopied worksheets at school. Being able to pop in to see ‘real paintings’, and stand in front of them, whenever I wanted was a joy. (You can only imagine how excited I was on my first visit to the picture store).

Nelly and I in the Art Gallery.

There were many works on display then that held great appeal for me. The huge expanse of cloudy sky in Koninck’s Panoramic Landscape, Paul de Vos’ rather unpleasantly named Still Life with Dead Game and Fruit with its two inquisitive dogs and scrapping parrots, and Whistler’s Harmony in Red: Lamplight, the beautiful and infinitely touching full length portrait of his future wife Beatrice Burnie Philip.

But my favourite, and the one that I kept coming back to see (and still do when she is in situ) is Nelly O’Brien by the great 18th century British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Forget the Mona Lisa – there is something about Nelly’s smile.

Nelly came into The Hunterian collection from that of William A. Cargill – one of the greatest private collections in Scotland. (Apparently she was located in the drawing room). The majority of his collection was sold at Christies in 1963 after his death. Nelly was one of 6 paintings not included in the sale that were given to The Hunterian.

Nelly O’Brien (d. 1768), Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1762 – 1768, painting, oil on canvas.

The lady in question has a somewhat dubious past but this is part of her allure. A famous courtesan who moved in aristocratic circles, Nelly was also a close friend of Reynolds and often sat for him. Here she is depicted, somewhat ironically, with one arm resting on a stone pedestal carved in relief with Danaë receiving Jupiter as a shower of gold coins. For those not up on their Greek mythology or allegory in art, Danaë was a symbol of chastity and virgin conception through divine intervention. (Nelly was known to have a son ’of unacknowledged parenthood’).

Reynolds would have painted her in the studio and added the backdrop later, but to me, seated in a woodland grove, she looks out at us with her direct gaze and knowing smile, appearing relaxed and content in her patch of sunlight.

Irony or allusion aside, I think Nelly looks comfortable in her own skin. You can see it in her smile and that makes her my favourite.

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