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Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, circa 1797 -NPG 1237 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Regency Portraits Catalogue

Mary Wollstonecraft

by John Opie
circa 1797
30 1/4 in. x 25 1/4 in. (768 mm x 641 mm)
NPG 1237

This portraitback to top

There has been some slight confusion between this portrait and another in the Tate Gallery, formerly NG 1167. They are both authenticated by engravings, the Tate Gallery portrait in a stipple by Ridley as Mrs Wollstonecraft published in The Monthly Mirror, 1 February 1796; this shows her younger than in NPG 1237, seated reading a book, her hair powdered, curly, tied with a white band and falling over her shoulders; her dress is dull blue with sepia stripes. It was probably painted shortly after the publication of the Rights of Woman in 1792; it then disappears until its purchase by William Russell (as by Northcote), lent by Russell to the British Institution 1861 and Second Exhibition of National Portraits, South Kensington, 1867, and subsequent purchase by the National Gallery at the Russell sale, 5 December 1884 (108). (It was lent to the NPG 1898-1900 as no.1170.)
Its authenticity was immediately questioned by C. Kegan Paul (The Times, 2 January 1885) on the grounds of its dissimilarity to the NPG portrait in which the sitter is differently clothed, has straighter unpowdered hair and according to Paul looks younger, though this could be easily disputed. The Director of the National Gallery sprang to its defence a few days later; and Paul's final conclusion was non-committal: 'I can only leave the puzzle as I find it, saying simply that the authenticity of the first portrait (NPG 1237) is obviously indisputable, while it is not easy do dispute that of the second.' The problem is discussed at some length by Durant (William Godwin, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1798, ed. W. Clark Durant 1927, pp 327-34) who decides that the Tate portrait does not represent Mary Godwin at all but the 'wife of an artist'; he refutes the Monthly Mirror engraving on the grounds of Mary's publisher's refusal to supply a portrait or biographical details. Margaret Tims in a more recent study (Mary Wollstonecraft: a Social Pioneer, 1976, pp 367-8) accepts them both as authentic. The present author has no doubts that they both represent Mary Godwin, the Tate portrait showing her several years younger. A passage in Farington's Diary, 11 November 1796 (Greig edn. only) implies a longish friendship with Opie and therefore the possibility of sittings several years earlier. The theory refuting the Monthly Mirror engraving seems far-fetched. The NPG portrait could therefore be a marriage portrait or even a wedding present to Godwin; they were married in March 1797, Mary speaks of calling on Opie in April (though a sitting is not actually mentioned), and she died in September of puerperal fever following the birth of their daughter. Southey deplored Godwin's re-marriage adding 'but to take another wife with the picture of Mary Wollstonecroft in his house! Agh!' (letter to Coleridge February 1804, Life and Correspondence, II, p 268).
Some uncertainty has been expressed about the subsequent history of the two portraits and which of them was lot 97 in the Opie sale 6 June 1807. However even this doubt is virtually extinguished by the belief of Sir Percy Shelley that his version (i.e. NPG 1237) had been painted for Godwin who had omitted to pay for it and that it had therefore been sold by Opie's executors in 1807 (Ada Earland, John Opie and his Circle, 1911, p 124).

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length seated head to left, in a white muslin Empire dress, dark green turban, fair hair fastened in a knot at the nape, brown eyes, fresh complexion, faintly smiling; plain grey-brown background.

Provenanceback to top

William Godwin; Sir Percy Shelley and bequeathed by Jane Lady Shelley 1889.

Exhibitionsback to top

'Byron', V&A Museum, 1974 (K14); Palazzo Reale, Milan, 1982.

Reproductionsback to top

Stipple by Heath titled 'Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin' and published 1 January 1798, frontispiece to William Godwin's Memoir, 1798; mezzotint by W. T. Annis published 1 June 1802 (John Chaloner Smith, British Mezzotint Portraits, I).


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, 1985, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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