Artworks
Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl
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gstecyk's picture

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Kitty Fisher was an attention whore who was also an actual whore, and Joshua Reynolds knew that sex sells.

Basically the original celebrity, Kitty was famous for being famous, paving the way for this generation’s reality TV and viral video stars. Joshua Reynolds filled his studio with paintings of famous beauties and tabloid darlings such as Kitty to attract curious clients. Kitty may have been his favorite of these, and gossip has it she was also his mistress. Then again, Kitty was pretty much everybody’s mistress- a courtesan (a.k.a. high-class hooker), who staged wild publicity stunts to increase her popularity.  On one occasion she fell off a horse (by accident?), and a media frenzy erupted parodying her as a “fallen woman.” The people loved it. There’s no such thing as bad publicity! 

Reynolds, the most successful painter of his day, knew a marketing scheme when he saw one. He painted Kitty as Cleopatra. According to legend, the Egyptian Queen dissolved a pearl in vinegar and drank it, just because she could.  The painting uses the historical anecdote to highlight another of Kitty’s elaborate publicity stunts. After the one and only Casanova refused to pay ten guineas for her sexual favors, Kitty topped his snub by eating a 100-pound banknote on bread and butter.  The peasants are starving?  Let them eat money!

Reynolds and Kitty were sort of the Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick of 18th-century London.  He produced thousands of engravings of Kitty as Cleopatra for the mass market.  They sold like wildfire, used as pinups by men, and fashion plates by women.  So in a way, Kitty and Reynolds sort of invented mass-produced art, and the concept of modern fame. The 1945 Hollywood movie Kitty, starring Paulette Goddard was based on her life.  However, in the movie she is Thomas Gainsborough’s muse, not Reynolds’. The film was nominated for an Oscar for art direction, proving Kitty’s penchant for courting fame and fortune, even post-mortem.