Have you been reading along with The Rienzi and Bayou Bend book club this month? I am in the middle of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life and enjoying how many of the fun facts fit right in with Rienzi’s unique environment! This is especially true for Chapter 7, “The Drawing Room.” Not only does Rienzi have a Drawing Room, but it is one of our docents’ favorite rooms to talk about.
In this chapter, Bryson uses the writing of Horace Walpole, an18th-century man of letters, as a colorful primary source for the experience and feeling of the era. Interestingly, Walpole is important to Rienzi not only because he was a prominent cultural figure from the time and place Rienzi’s collection hails from, but because he once directly commented on the subject of one of the portraits that hangs in Rienzi's Gallery. Mrs. Elisha Mathew, painted by the esteemed Sir Joshua Reynolds (whom Bryson alludes to earlier in the book, noting that he is a famous child of a clergyman), was once described as “a most perfect beauty” by Walpole. Reynolds was the leading portraitist of his day and is an easily recognizable name in British painting. This full-length portrait of Mrs. Elisha Mathew, nee Smyth, is ripe with Reynolds’ trademark flattering, idealized, female depiction. The costume worn by the subject represents the grace and glamour of her status. Reynolds was also known to not use a particular setting, but a romanticized and refined rendering of many places.
For those of you reading At Home: A Short History of Private Life with us, you’ll be able to see this work by Reynolds during the self-guided Book Club tour on Wednesday, September 28th. Even if you haven’t been reading along with us, we hope you stop by and visit Mrs. Elisha Mathew – she’s a prominent feature in Rienzi’s Gallery!