30 Aug
Thu / 2012

Inside the MFAH
The Characters of Kenwood: Kitty Fisher

During the run of the exhibition Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, we have filled you in on the lives of the characters that add to the colorful history of the Kenwood estate. Quite a few of these 18th-century beauties—including actresses, courtesans, and other celebrities—would have recognized (and in some cases snubbed) each other had they entered the same reception rooms . . .

Kitty Fisher, born Catherine Marie Fischer, may have been the most scrutinized beauty featured in the magnificent Kenwood House portraits. Although she worked as a milliner growing up, she was introduced to the London high life by Lieutenant General Anthony George Martin, and she maintained a regular spot in the social spotlight thanks to her well-known affairs with wealthy men. Artists were no exception, and Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of her greatest admirers. Reynolds painted seven portraits of Fisher, proving what a fascinating subject she was to everyone.
 
In his 1759 portrait Kitty Fisher as "Cleopatra" Dissolving the Pearl, Reynolds depicts a scene that recalls an ancient legend: at a magnificent banquet held in Alexandria to impress Mark Antony, Cleopatra pulled a giant pearl from her ear, dissolved it in her wine, and drank it. The scene also might allude to the rumor that Fisher once ate a banknote on a piece of bread in exchange for a sum of money. Regardless of the verity of either story, the painting reflects Fisher’s alluring beauty, powers of seduction, and notorious extravagance. When Fisher died in her mid-20s, the press called her “a martyr to the cosmetic art” because of gossip that she died from the then-familiar-misfortune of applying too much lead-white paint on her face.
 
As one of the most celebrated courtesans of her time, Fisher has even been immortalized in a nursery rhyme: “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; But ne’er a penny was there in’t; Except the ribbon 'round it.”
 
To see the fabulous renditions of these personalities up close, visit the exhibition—organized by the American Federation of Arts and English Heritage—before the MFAH engagement closes on Monday, September 3.

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