doatherine Maria “Kitty” Fisher was the most famous parmesan in England in 1760 and was one of the first celebrities to be famous simply because they were famous. Her career as a high-profile prostitute allegedly began after she was seduced and then abandoned by a young army officer. Using her intelligence, charm and beauty, she became famous through high profile links with rich and powerful men. London society was shocked and fascinated by her behavior and cultivated her fame by collaborating with writers and artists to promote her public image.
Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl was painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1759, probably commissioned by her client Sir Charles Bingham. In this sexually charged image, Reynolds portrays Kitty as Cleopatra in a scene reminiscent of a rich banquet honored by Mark Antony, in which the Egyptian queen dissolves a huge pearl in vinegar and drinks it. Similar stories were told about Kitty, who was notorious for her luxury. According to Casanova, she once ate a 100. Banknote on a slice of buttered bread. The relationship between Kitty and Cleopatra – another woman known for her beauty, glamor and command of strong men – was not lost on modern audiences.
Kitty painted Reynolds at least four times, sparking speculation that they were lovers. For Kitty, painting by the most famous artist of the day was a powerful act of self-promotion. Similarly, the friendship and painting of a woman who moved among the social elite but violated the codes of polite society gave Reynolds enormous publicity and allowed him to push the boundaries of the portrait in a way that would be unacceptable to the most conventional women.
This painting was not among the original 63 works left to the nation by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, in 1927 as part of the Iveagh Bequest. Instead, it was bequeathed to Kenwood by Lord Moyne’s son in 1946. Today the painting hangs in the music room and is one of Kenwood’s most interesting and well-kept Georgian beauties.
• You can see more artwork from Kenwood House at Art UK here and learn more on its website.
• This series is presented to you in collaboration with Art UK, which combines the art of the nation on a digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The site features works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues, including museums, universities and hospitals, as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art that belongs to you here.