A highly successful artist and Governor of the Foundling Hospital, Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) is best known as a portrait painter of the Georgian middle class. However, during the 1740s Highmore’s art radically shifted as he turned his focus to societal attitudes towards women and sexuality. Curated by Highmore expert, Dr Jacqueline Riding, Basic Instincts explores this ten-year period and his disruptive commentary, reflecting his engagement with the work of the new Foundling Hospital and its mission to support desperate and abused women. On public display in the UK for the first time is a remarkable painting that still retains the power to shock.
In 1744 Highmore created a series of 12 paintings on his own initiative inspired by Samuel Richardson’s international bestseller, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. First published in 1740, the novel’s sixth edition of 1742 included illustrations by Hubert Gravelot and Francis Hayman. However, unlike the commissioned illustrations, Highmore’s paintings explicitly make reference to the abuse and sexual violence at the heart of Richardson’s story of a virtuous young maidservant fighting off the unwanted advances of her predatory master.
Highmore and Richardson became friends, and Highmore subsequently illustrated Richardson’s masterpiece, Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, whose tragic heroine avoids a forced marriage, but dies having been abandoned by her family, duped by an admirer, drugged and raped.
Unlike William Hogarth, Highmore’s representation of Georgian society favoured realism over broad humour and theatricality, so his nuanced articulation of social attitudes towards women and sexuality means that modern audiences can miss his challenging commentary. However, at the heart of Basic Instincts is a remarkable painting that has never before been publicly displayed in the UK and which does not fail to shock.
The Angel of Mercy (c.1746) depicts a desperate mother in the act of killing her baby, with the distant Foundling Hospital presented as an alternative solution. This painting is unique in western art for showing maternal infanticide as a contemporary reality. The fashionably dressed mother is free from direct biblical or mythological allusion, unlike
Basic Instincts curator Jacqueline Riding said: ‘This is the first major Highmore exhibition for 50 years and nowhere can his life and work have greater resonance than at the Foundling Museum: an organisation at the forefront of the public display, interpretation and appreciation of early-Georgian art. Setting The Angel of Mercy, the Pamela paintings and Hagar and Ishmael among Highmore’s most tender portraits of mothers and children, family and friends, uniquely demonstrates the artist’s depth and variety, while indicating the true breadth of British Art in a period still labelled “The Age of Hogarth”’.
Foundling Museum director Caro Howell said: ‘Basic Instincts demonstrates that in the eighteenth century, the Foundling Hospital’s impact on contemporary artists went far beyond a simple donation of art. For Joseph Highmore it sparked a radical engagement with the issue of women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and society’s unwillingness to support them, culminating in a work of quite exceptional power.’
Basic Instincts explores the limits and narratives around female respectability in Georgian society, and reveals the complexity of Highmore’s engagement with issues surrounding women’s vulnerability to male exploitation. The first major publication dedicated to Joseph Highmore and written by Dr Jacqueline Riding will be published by Paul Holberton publishing to coincide with the exhibition. The exhibition is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.