Reynolds was one of the outstanding intellectuals and artists of his age. Renowned not only for his monumental, elegant portraiture and historical subjects, he also experimented in the techniques and pigments of his trade. Reynolds was a founding member, with his rival Gainsborough, and the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. He wrote celebrated annual discourses on art theory and practice. His travel in Italy introduced him to the artists of the Italian Renaissance, notably Raphael, as well as contemporary artists, including such portraitists as Batoni, whose idealizing grand style appealed to him. Upon his return to London in 1753, he rubbed shoulders with literary and political luminaries. He rapidly rose to the position of the most sought-after portraitist of notable, wealthy and aristocratic figures of the day. He was knighted by George III in 1769.
This painting is a typical example of the gentle idealization, restraint and “good taste” which characterizes so many of Reynolds’ works. The portrait can be dated precisely, as the sittings with the Irish statesman’s wife are given in Reynolds’ own ledger records. The dress alludes to those seen in Van Dyck’s grand portraits of the previous century, while the ermine over-gown appears to be derived from a contemporary oriental costume manual, rather than from life.