All images © British Library

(Double click image to enlarge)

Reynolds painted Colonel Tarleton just before the conclusion of the American War of Independence (1775-1783), at a time when Imperial authority over the American colonies was being questioned and ultimately overturned. The idealised nature of the Tarleton portrait and its exhibition in 1782, at a time when the Academy was well-established and Reynolds was at dizzying heights in his career, allowed the artist to exploit the patriotic and nationalistic leanings of the Academy, and to paint a portrait which is still admired and venerated to this day.Sir BanastreTarleton was famous for his military service, and although posterity has ascribed him the nickname 'The Butcher' for his merciless attitude towards his enemies, he was successful, fearless and brave – and these qualities can be seen in Reynolds's depiction of him in a confident striding pose with one foot planted firmly on a cannon. He is depicted patriotically in uniform, and the print after Reynolds's painting illuminates with greater clarity the royal crest of the British Legion on the billowing flag.

Colonel Tarleton is depicted, as befitting his reputation, in the midst of battle. However there is an absence of the enemy – while the soldier looks out to the left of the canvas, as if ready to confront a new wave of attack, his horses are shownas frightened by something or someone to the right. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Reynolds was alluding to Tarleton's ferocious reputation with the composition of the two horses; they seem to be eyeballing Tarleton himself, as if scared that he is about to draw his sword. Tarleton is not the only figure in the painting – behind him is a figure with his back to the viewer, engaged in restraining the horses; however he occupies a sort of half-presence in the painting, as if he is merely a floating torso emerging from the back of Tarleton – the rest of his corporality is lost in the smoke and draping flags. Is the second figure merely an extension of Tarleton himself? He wears the same uniform and most noticeably the same extravagantly plumed helmet. Tarleton's obstruction of the only other human being in the painting could be construed as martial arrogance, but it is perhaps more a self-assertive implication of Tarleton's supreme command of the battlefield and his super-human strength.

By Kate Bowden