Reynolds sought to elevate British painting, including portraiture, to the lofty realms of classical expression. After traveling to Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Venice, Reynolds became the first president of the Royal Academy, which had been founded in 1768. Through his teaching at the Academy and the publication of his annual lectures, the Discourses, he urged the adoption of grand classical values and the study of Greek and Roman sculpture and Renaissance painting.
In Lady Delmé, Reynolds created an image of idealized, majestic feminine grace that has many precedents in Renaissance art. The pyramidal composition of the sitters, Lady Delmé's encircling arms and quiet manner, and the regal folds of the deep-rose drapery across her knees are reminiscent of Madonna and Child compositions by Raphael.
The rich, warm colors of the informal landscape and the beautifully controlled movement of light into the deep reaches of the background owe much to Titian. Finally, Reynolds' sensitive use of everyday, intimate details prevents the portrait from becoming remote and unapproachable. The tenderness with which Lady Delmé holds her two children, the nuances of personality in the three faces, the realistic costumes of the young sitters, and the attentive posture of the Skye terrier give the painting a worldly, familiar context.
Marks and Labels
Painted for the sitter's husband, Peter Delmé [1748-1789], Titchfield Abbey, Hampshire; by descent to Seymour Robert Delmé, Cams Hall, Hampshire. Charles J. Wertheimer [d. 1911], London. (Christie, Manson & Wood, London); purchased c. 1900-1901 by J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. [1837-1913], New York; bequeathed to his daughter, Mrs. Robert L. Satterlee [d. 1946], who owned it until c. 1930. (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London and New York); sold 15 December 1936 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
- Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School, Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1895, no. 130.
- Loan Collection of Pictures and Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A. and of a Selection of Pictures by Some of His Contemporaries, Corporation of London Art Gallery, 1899, no. 170.
- Aedlre Engelsky Künst, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 1908, no. 29, repro.
- Aelterer Englischer Kunst, Königliche Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1908, no. 68 (souvenir volume, 73, repro.).
- Fifteen Masters of the Eighteenth Century, Jacques Seligmann & Co., New York, 1928, no. 13.
- Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Philip Sassoon's, 45 Park Lane, London, 1937, no. 26 (souvenir, repro. 56).
- Leslie, Charles Robert and Tom Taylor. Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds. 2 vols. London, 1865: 2:202, 302.
- Graves, Algernon and William Vine Cronin. A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. 4 vols. London, 1899-1901: 1:241; 4:.
- Armstrong, Sir Walter. Sir Joshua Reynolds. London, 1900: 202.
- Roberts, William. Pictures in the Collection of J. Pierpont Morgan at Prince's Gate & Dover House, London: English School. London, 1907: unpaginated.
- Duveen Brothers. Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941: no. 264, repro., as Lady Betty Delmé and Children.
- Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 167, no. 95.
- Waterhouse, Sir Ellis. Reynolds. London, 1941: 68, pl. 191.
- Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 241, repro. 17.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 106, repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 134, color repro.
- Cooke, Hereward Lester. British Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1960 (Booklet Number Eight in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 12, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 319, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 113.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:350, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 101, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 302, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: no. 504, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 361, no. 502, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 348, repro.
- Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 213-215, repro. 214.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 149, repro.
- Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 374, color repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 278-279, no. 225, color repro.
The light- to medium-weight canvas is twill woven; it has been double lined. The ground is not discernible through the discolored varnish and thick paint layers, but is probably white. The painting is richly executed in a complex of different layers and techniques. The lowest paint layer is gray; the middle layers are thickly applied, white in the lights, the drapery, and background, and dark in the tree trunks, foliage, and shadows; the final layers defining detail contain nonoil additives and include rich brown, red, and blue glazes in the foliage, sky, and landscape, and in parts of the figures. The painting seems to have been retouched and revarnished by Reynolds in 1789. There are many shallow, overpainted losses throughout the painting. Broad craquelure marks most of the dark, rich browns, indicating the presence of bitumen. The varnish, which appears to be a natural resin, is difficult to distinguish from the final glazes and has discolored yellow to a significant degree.
 A newspaper report dated 19 September 1789 stated that this and some other portraits "which for many years have been lodged in his infirmary" now "by the help of fresh varnish and a few vivifying touches from his pencil, again claim our notice" (Graves and Cronin 1899-1901, 4: 1296).