Posted by: scott28k | November 9, 2020

Class and Portraiture in the Victorian Era

Lady Bette Delme is an example of what it was to be a part of the aristocracy in the Victorian era. This portrait of her and her children, painted by Joshua Reynolds in the late 1700s, is not just a painting for painting’s sake; the subject(s) wanted to send a clear message for those who would be viewing it. This genre of painting was called aristocratic portraiture.

Every detail in this portrait is intentional. One of the first details to note, and surely the eye is drawn to it, is Lady Delme’s dress. The vast amount of material, silk and lace, indicates the family’s wealth. Also, her hair is coiffed high on her head. Her son is dressed in rich red velvet. Because he is wearing red, he is the most prominent figure in the portrait. Her daughter looks as if she is dressed in lace, with a touch of silk at her waist.

The way the painter has Lady Delme and her children positioned was deliberate, as well. Her son is posed in the middle, and has the most rouge on his face, as to stand out from the female figures. His presence in the portrait alone is emphasizing him as the male heir, reproduction, health, and from the way he is standing, could have had military influence. Lady Delme has her arm protectively around her children, as if to shield them from harm, especially her male heir. A dog is also in the portrait, looking up at them lovingly. Having a pet in this time period was also a symbol of wealth.

Additionally, the Delmes are sitting for the portrait on their land. One can see that their land is visible as far as the eye can reach. They could have easily sat for the portrait indoors, but making the decision to pose on their land is calculated – they want the viewers to see how much land they own. The trees behind the family are large and tall, indicating that the property may have been passed down to them, and that they are from “old money.” Although each subject is looking in different directions, their gazes, especially Lady Delme’s, have an air, a level of self-assurance, maybe a degree of being smug. There is an ease about them; even though they presumedly were posed for the portrait by the painter. The painter wanted to emphasize the whiteness of the subjects. Which begs the question, how much agency did the family have in this sitting?

Regardless of the choice in this matter, again, a clear message is conveyed through every detail of this portrait, from the clothing, the land, and even the way the subjects are posed. There are various axis of representation here: race, gender, family, ownership. All of those together create a chasm of separation of the aristocracy and the working class. This portrait is a type narrative; a type of performance; a performance of status, wealth, and class. This portrait loudly proclaims their position without saying a word.

Works Cited:

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children, 1777-1779. 1779, National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor – Gallery 59.


  1. This was a great expansion on what we discussed in class! Your noting of the fabrics and colors worn by the figures in the portrait is really useful in helping to draw the reader’s mind immediately to the wealth this family possesses. The way that you point out other indicators of wealth, such as the ownership of a healthy pet and the large amount of land shown behind the family, also helps to convey the sense of aristocratic opulence that is so palpable in this painting. Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

  2. Completely agree! I think of this portrait every time I need to visualize the “ideal wife” of the texts we’ve read during this class. Comparatively to figures like Irene Adler and Sibyl Vane, this image is so posh and resolute. It allows for little to no movement, both physically (I could not run in that dress) and structurally, as the subjects are fully confined in the frame.

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