Reynolds portrays Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833) aged 27, in action as commandant of the British Legion cavalry in the War of American Independence. Tarleton was famed for his reckless bravery and savagery, as well as for his vanity. He later became MP for Liverpool and defended the slave trade, on which his family’s fortune had been founded. He was made a general in 1812 and a baronet in 1816.
Reynolds portrays Tarleton momentarily dismounted on a battlefield, with gun-smoke swirling behind him. Wearing the uniform of the British Legion, he props one leg up on a cannon to re-fix his sword to his belt before changing horses. Reynolds frequently drew on ideas from old master paintings, drawings and antique sculpture for his compositions. Tarleton’s pose appears to be based on works by Rembrandt, Tintoretto and an ancient Roman sculpture of Hermes.
Reynolds portrays Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833) aged 27, in action as commandant of the British Legion cavalry in the War of American Independence. Tarleton was known for his reckless bravery as well as his vanity. He later became MP for Liverpool and defended the slave trade, on which his family’s fortune and those of other Liverpool families had been founded. He was made a general in 1812 and a baronet in 1816. The portrait was commissioned by one of Colonel Tarleton’s brothers on behalf of their mother.
Tarleton wears the uniform of the British Legion, which was constantly in action, mostly in South Carolina, in many skirmishes and raids. His savagery was legendary and he was known as ‘bloody Tarleton’ to the Americans. He lost two fingers from a musket shot in his right hand. The war and the American colonies were effectively lost on 19 October 1781 when Lord Cornwallis had to surrender all the forces under his command to George Washington at Yorktown.
Reynolds recorded that Tarleton had nine sittings for his portrait, the first only ten days after Tarleton landed in England at the end of the war. When the portrait’s head and shoulders were sufficiently finished, an unknown engraver produced a picture for publication with a lengthy account of Tarleton’s wartime exploits. About this time, Tarleton began a scandalous affair with Mrs Robinson, previously the mistress of the Prince of Wales. They may have met in Reynolds’s studio as he also painted Mrs Robinson’s portrait as ‘Perdita’ (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) and Reynolds’s records show they had sittings on the same days.
Reynolds shows Tarleton momentarily dismounted on a battlefield, with gun smoke swirling behind him. Two horses, their reins held by a trooper, are seen behind a gun carriage. Tarleton props one leg up on a cannon to re-fix his sword to his belt before changing horse. Reynolds frequently drew on ideas from old master paintings and drawings and antique sculpture for his own compositions. Tarleton’s pose appears to be based on a combination of different sources: Rembrandt’s Tobias and the Angel at the River (a drawing owned by Reynolds), a detail from Tintoretto’s The Washing of the Apostle’s Feet in S. Marcuola, Venice (Reynolds owned a painted copy of it), and an antique sculpture of Hermes. A replica cast of the Hermes was at the Royal Academy Schools, of which Reynolds was president.
The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, and mostly received praise from the critics. However, Reynolds had to wait nine years after painting it for payment from the Tarleton family.
The condition of the portrait has suffered due to faults in Reynolds’s technique which are also apparent in his other paintings, such as Lord Heathfield. When this portrait was painted, oil paints were not sold ready-made in tubes: artists and their assistants would make up the paints themselves using pigments and drying oils, such as walnut or linseed. Reynolds used experimental combinations of oils to make up his paints, including linseed, poppy and walnut oils as well as a conifer resin in this portrait. This has resulted in lasting problems with the paints themselves. Reynolds used non-drying or poor-drying oil glazes between many other layers of paint made of differing media when he reworked an area of the portrait, making the whole of the paint structure unstable.
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