Upon entering the Tate Britain, one takes the briefest of sojourns through the seven rooms of the early twentieth century, and finally into Room 1760 located in the corner on the ground floor. As you navigate through the early contemporary and romantic eras, you begin to sense the grandeur building, as you finally arrive in the early Classical era. Taking centre stage of the left-hand wall, is Sir Joshua Reynolds “Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen”.
In 1773, Luke Gardiner was engaged to Elizabeth Montgomery. Elizabeth was the eldest sister of the three Montgomery Sisters, who were characterised as the ‘Irish Graces’, based on their reputable beauty. Gardiner commissioned Reynolds for a piece including all three sisters, and with a precise theme in mind, instructing him “I wish to have their portraits together at full length, representing some emblematical or historical subject”.
The grandness of this piece begins with its sheer size, this oil painting on canvas dwarfs its adjacent neighbours with a total size of 290 x 338 cms. Its frame, generally in good condition, houses two layers of gold interweaved soft leaves. With the frame depth itself of 50cms, it provides sufficient buffer between our world and the world Reynolds presents to us.
As the title suggests, these ‘Irish Graces’ of Barbara, Elizabeth and Anne, are depicted in a joyful procession of floral garnishing. The object of their adornment is Hymen, the God of Marriage, manifested as a large bust of him nestled on a base (the ‘term’). This playful scene of celebration, almost dance-like in pose, allows us to join their fanciful celebration. We are immediately drawn to the bottom left of the image, where the younger Montgomery sister kneels, one hand hovering over a bed of freshly picked roses, other arm outstretched to her older sibling. Their intersection is the beginning of a garland of flowers, that joins the three sisters in unison, providing a linear connection that rapidly ascends towards Elizabeth.
Reynolds presents the scene to us completely focused on the action and events unfolding. It can be estimated that no more than 25% of the painting is landscape, with the residual dominated by the action and ensuring our complete attention. As the action unfolds, the middle sister begins her almost ascent towards her older sister Elizabeth. She casts an expectant glance down on her younger sibling, with an outstretched hand, asking her to join her on her divine ascendance. We can observe that only the frontal part of her left foot, together with only the minor support of a footstool for her right knee, provide the total support for her forward momentum. Her expression though does not indicate any concern, almost as if she can detect the air underneath pushing her off the ground.
Reynolds decides to infuse this piece with a kaleidoscope of darkish, dense colours, that evokes our sense of a chilly Autumn afternoon. The trees have lost their bloom, and all that remains are the abundance of leafy foliage, the denseness further enhanced by their gnarly and stubbly structure, casting elaborate shadows over the stage of this balletic composition. This canvas of bark and leaves provides an imposing backdrop, casting vast shadows over the stage of their festivities. Our senses are not dulled however, as Reynolds cleverly uses a powerful light source from the left-hand side, which penetrates horizontally across the piece.
The incoming light serves as a fifth character almost, behind the three sisters and Hymen. As it enters our purview, its fragments are almost magnetically targeted with meticulous precision. On the youngest sister, it bathes the top of her scarlet gown, transforming it into brilliant white. The light continues through the piece, illuminating the second sisters head, until it plateaus with Elizabeth. Almost all of her body is able to bask in its attention, providing immunity against the elements.
One can sense an implied divinity associated with the use of light, as it reinforces the subjects’ purity. Reynolds combines both the use of colour and physics to articulate an evolution of this purity. The transition begins with the younger sister, cloaked in deep red possibly symbolising carnal passion or sexual desire. From there, we evolve into the deep-orange dress tones worn by the middle sister who stands almost in full pose, rendering a sense of neutrality. Elizabeth then stands at full height, arms outstretched towards the heavens, dressed in striking white, representing the pinnacle of purity. She delicately stands there, against a background of turbulent red behind Hymen, as if to remind us of the constant temptations that threaten the institution of marriage.
Their features are well defined through Reynolds renown precision brushwork. Their porcelain white skin is delicately augmented with flushed rosy red cheeks, providing a visual reminder of the elements, and a stark counterpoint to their attire. He expertly manages to apply differing shades of white and off-white, helping our visual senses determine between the incoming natural light, and the shadows cast over bare skin. The fabrics of the respective gowns worn by the three sisters are sumptuous and elegant. Compositionally, Reynolds uses various shades which helps create a three-dimensional perspective (like the chiaroscuro of their gowns billowing in a light breeze). His mastery of fine detail to mimesis, allows us to almost reach out and touch the velvet creases which embellish the sinuous curves of our heroines.
With Grand History styles still very prominent in the latter part of the 18th Century, Roman ideals were reformulated for a modern audience. Reynolds infuses references and motifs linked to antiquity. Hymen himself is an arresting symbol of marriage, which is at the very centre of this piece. Elizabeth is flanked by other objects which are a direct lineage to the ancient world. We can see what appears to be a vessel, perhaps for holding water. Water has many ancient themes, and can be associated with fertility, purification of the soul, and an admission into faith. These would be consistent with the chastity of marriage, and the purity of the institution of which she is about to enter. We can also identify a shield, with a ram (lamb) moniker embossed the front. The lamb can be correlated to the personification of innocence, gentleness, patience and humility, whereas the shield is an attribute of chastity (protection from the arrows of Cupid). Finally, we can observe smoke behind the shield, possibly from a Censer. Rising smoke is traditionally symbolized as prayers ascending to heaven.
This piece could be considered a celebration of marriage. One cannot wonder though what Gardiner (the patron) made of it. Yes, the sisters are in a formal enactment of celebration for their elder sisters impending nuptial. However, is there a level of nervousness and trepidation present in the underlying tone? Perhaps Reynolds, who himself never married, could not resist the opportunity to moderate the level of warmth and elation portrayed. For now though, ‘Three Ladies’ represents Reynolds at his boldest.