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Somewhat over a century ago, at the time when our American colonies were struggling for liberty, lived the great English portrait painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In those days photography had not been invented, and portrait painting was a profession patronized by all classes of people. There were many portrait studios in London, but none were so fashionable as that of Reynolds.

It is said that in his long life he painted as many as three thousand portraits. There was scarcely a distinguished man or beautiful woman in the kingdom who did not sit to him, and many were the children whose portraits he painted. If all his works could be brought together they would form a complete historical gallery of the reign of George III. Here we should see princes, statesmen, and warriors, actors and poets, court beauties and "blue stockings," the petted children of the rich, and the picturesque waifs of the London streets. Among the faces we should find those, like Fox and Burke, whose lives were intimately connected with the destinies of our own nation, and those, like Goldsmith and Johnson, whose names are familiar in our schools and homes. There is something about these portraits which makes them seem alive, something too which gives to the plainest person a certain dignity and interest.

With all the variety of subjects which Reynolds treated he was never happier than when painting children. He loved them dearly, delighted to play with them, and seemed to understand them as few grown people do. In his great octagonal painting room were many things to amuse his little friends, and a portrait sitting there usually meant a frolic.

Penelope Boothby is the name of the little girl in our illustration, and the old-fashioned name is precisely suited to the quaint figure in cap and mitts. We are reminded of that Penelope of the old Greek poem, the Odyssey, who waited so faithfully through the years for the return of her husband Odysseus from the Trojan war. The story runs that, believing Odysseus to be dead, many suitors begged her hand, but she always replied that before marrying she must first complete the shroud she was making for her aged father-in-law. Every day she busied herself with the task, but when night came she secretly undid all that she had wrought through the day, so that it might never reach completion. Thus she prolonged the time of waiting until at last Odysseus returned to claim his wife.

Whether or not the little Penelope of our picture knew this story we cannot say, but it was the fashion of the times to revive the names and legends of mythology, and Penelope was a name which had come to stand for all the domestic virtues.


As we look at the picture for the first time the quaint costume of the little girl suggests the idea that she is dressed for a tableau. Children the world over love to don the clothes of a past generation and play at men and women. Miss Penelope, we fancy, has been ransacking some old chest of faded finery, and has arrayed herself in the character of "Martha Washington," as painted by Gilbert Stuart. The snowy kerchief folded across her bosom and the big mob cap on her head are precisely like those in the portraits of the colonial lady. The child purses her lips together primly and folds her hands in a demure attitude in her lap, as if to play her part well, but she is far too shy to look us directly in the face, and glances aside with downcast eyes.

All this illusion is dispelled when we come to study the customs of the period. It appears that children then, both in England and America, dressed precisely like their elders, and Penelope's costume here is doubtless such as she wore every day. A little Boston girl, Anna Green Winslow, wrote in her diary in 1771 of wearing a cap and black mitts which we fancy were not unlike these. There are portraits, too, of other little girls of the time, wearing the same huge headdress, as we may see in the family group of the Copleys in the Boston Art Museum.

Penelope was the only child of Sir Brooke Boothby, and, as we may well believe from her winsome face, the darling of the household. Her home was a fine mansion buried among trees in the beautiful English country. She was, we fancy, a quiet little girl, preferring a corner with her dolls to any boisterous romp, but not without a bit of fun in her nature. She was an affectionate little creature, and very fond of her father, watching at the gate for his return home, and sitting on his knee in the evening. On Sunday mornings she went to the quaint old church of Ashbourne and knelt beside her mother in the service.

All this and much more we learn from a book written by her father which bears the pathetic title of "Sorrows." For little Penelope died at the age of seven, and the stricken parent solaced himself in his loneliness by writing the memories of his darling.

The portrait by Reynolds was made when the child was four years old. After her death, Fuseli painted a picture representing her borne to heaven by an angel. There is also a lovely marble monument to Penelope, by Banks, in the Ashbourne church.[3]

[3] See Mrs. Rebecca Harding Davis's article in St. Nicholas, November, 1875, "About the Painter of Little Penelope."