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In the case of celebrities such as the courtesan Kitty Fisher, who is pictured in this engaging print, it is possible to suggest that one of Reynolds's chief reasons for undertaking the painting was in order that reproductions after it could be produced and circulated throughout London – raising the profile of both sitter and artist. This notion is supported by the fact that we do not know who commissioned the painting, and that the image rapidly became public property. The earliest mezzotints after this painting were produced by four different engravers and instantly became bestsellers in print shops of the period. In 1758, the year before the painting was created, London society had been entertained by a satirical poem entitled 'Kitty's Stream, or the Noblemen turned Fishermen', provoking a vexed Fisher to place a notice, published on 30th March in The Public Advertiser, in which she objected to the abuse she was subjected to by the press and the way she was 'exposed in print shops' – however, this appears not to have offended her as this was not the last time she sat for Reynolds.

The painting was never formally exhibited in a contemporary public exhibition. Miss Fisher is presented sitting at a cloth-covered table with a half-open letter lying in front of her, which dates from 2nd June 1759 and commences 'My dearest Life'. Reynolds's simple compositional formula is similar to that often used by his chief rival Allan Ramsay, depicting the sitter with crossed arms forming the base of a triangle. This pictorial device was frequently replicated by Reynolds in his portrayal of far more respectable sitters.Aileen Ribeiro has remarked that the painting offers 'an excellent example of the restrained English version of Rococo dress, with its emphasis on the textures and fabrics', and it is interesting to consider that Reynolds makes no attempt here to present his sitter in classicised clothing. Kitty's frontal pose displays her swathes of lavish lace to the maximum effect. She wears an elaborate and fashionable necklace, consisting of four rows of pearls fastened with a ribbon, a jewelled hairpiece and clip-on earrings – and these luxurious adornments heighten the idea that she is being presented as both a commodity and commercial being.

This unique portrait illustrates Kitty at ease and she addresses the viewer directly with a smile, her head tilted coquettishly. Despite her role as a renowned courtesan, Reynolds's female sitter appears to be a woman of sensibility. Northcote emphasized the artist's capacity to paint his female sitters as ladies – whether or not they actually were. In the foreshortened composition, Kitty seems to openly welcome the voyeuristic male gaze, but its penetrative power is thwarted by the barriers created by the table edge and her crossed arms – this interplay of intimacy yet detachment is paramount to the theme of 'looking; looking away'. The numerous juxtapositions are also exemplified by the fact that she has discarded the love letter and istherefore represented as an independent woman in spite of her dependency on men to make an income.

By Ruth Jones