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This striking portrait of Elizabeth Montagu, Duchess of Manchester, and her son George, Viscount Mandeville, in themythological guises of Diana and Cupid, is a prime example of Reynolds’s imaginative skill, and his desire to capture the spectator’s attention. While on the one hand the classical connotations evoke an idealised image of a virtuous woman, depicted during a moment of maternal affection with her son – when read allegorically, this print tells quite an unexpected story. The irony of placing Diana, the goddess associated with hunting, the moon, and – crucially – chastity, alongside the mischievous figure of Cupid, who was renowned for making people fall in love, is inescapable. This curious juxtaposition becomes even more intriguing when we consider Cupid’s role as the son of Venus – the goddess of love and beauty – and the tendency in ancient literature and myth to pit these two incompatible goddesses against one another in a metaphorical battle of chastity versus lust.

The expressionon the Duchess’ face is tender and maternal as she gently reaches down to remove thebow from the ostensibly sleeping, distracted child, in what appears to be a conventional mother and son scene. Such intimacy and familiarity deflects any potential conflict one might expect from the dual portrayal of these two very different mythological characters – there is a sense that, like a mother would, Diana is protecting Cupid by confiscating something it is unsafe for him to have. Cupid’s infamous bow and arrows were used as a weapon to inspire erotic love, lust and uncontrollable desire.Read in this way, Diana seems to be protecting Cupid from the dangers of lust; substituting it with a more compassionate, affectionate and maternal type of love, such as that found between the Duchess and her son. This notion is emphasised by the childlike portrayal of the son, or Cupid – his face looks very young, framed by angelic curls, and he is curled up on the ground, wrapped in a blanket. There is a certain vulnerability about him, which makes his mother’s role as protector even more important – a role which is reflected in the natural surroundings. The soft drapes of her classical-styledress float around her and the folds appear to flow downwards towards the grass and out of the picture plane, reminiscent of a river or rippling stream, mirroring those which course across the landscape in the backdrop. This fluidity conjures up her role as huntress, and she almost becomes a part of the pastoral setting.

This supple softness is interspersed very suddenly by the spear she holds in her left hand – the crisp, hard line breaks up the flow of her drapery, and the point at the top draws attention to the crescent crown upon her head, which symbolises her connection to the moon. This pictorial contrast is a subtle reminder that as a goddess, Diana may be pure and compassionate, but she also a powerful huntress – and we are perhaps invited to imaginethat as a mother, the Duchess is gentle, loving and caring, but also strict and strong. We get the impression that Diana has just entered the scene and isstill in motion as she leans down. Having her animated in this way adds a vibrancy and naturalness to the composition – she is not static, and posed as a purely decorative object, but active and dynamic. Through allegory, Reynolds imparts his painted womenwith a power and independence that they could never normally possess, and provides them with a freedom of expression which few would otherwise experience.

By Jodie Merritt