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Catherine Maria ‘Kitty’ Fisher, was one of the most celebrated courtesans in 1760s England. Using her wit, charm and beauty, she rose through the echelons of London’s fashionable society. Throughout her career, she had countless lovers of significant political influence and became, in the modern sense of the term, a celebrity. London society was both scandalised and fascinated by her behaviour, and she cultivated her celebrity status by collaborating with writers and artists to promote her public image. Reynolds’ portrayal of Kitty recalls the tale of Cleopatra’s legendary banquet, at which she and Mark Antony wagered over who could provide the most lavish feast. Cleopatra triumphed when she took a pearl from her earring, dissolved it in a goblet of vinegar and drank it.
Reynolds painted Kitty at least four times, fuelling speculation they were lovers. His decision to paint Kitty was a calculated one, knowing she would be an extremely marketable subject. Equally, befriending and painting a woman who moved among the social elite yet flouted the codes of polite society provided Reynolds with immense publicity. For Kitty, being painted by the most celebrated artist of the day was a powerful act of self-promotion.
Kitty Fisher (1741–1767) as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl
oil on canvas
H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
bequeathed to Kenwood by Walter Edward Guinness, 1st Baron Moyne, 1944