Image: Joseph Highmore, The Angel of Mercy, c1746. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Basic Instincts

Basic Instincts

40 Brunswick Square London WC1N 1AZ
29 Sep 2017 — 07 Jan 2018
  • Exhibitions & Displays
Curated by Dr Jacqueline Riding, Basic Instincts explores Georgian attitudes to love, desire and female respectability through the radical paintings of Joseph Highmore.

A highly successful artist and Governor of London’s Foundling Hospital, Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) is best known as a portrait painter of the Georgian middle class. However, during the 1740s his art radically shifted, reflecting his engagement with the work of the new Foundling Hospital and its mission to support desperate and abused women. Highmore’s involvement with the Hospital sparked engagement with issues around women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and society’s unwillingness to support them, culminating in a work of exceptional power, The Angel of Mercy.

Basic Instincts is the first major Highmore exhibition for 50 years and explores this decade of disruptive social commentary in his art. Amongst the works on display are four paintings from a series of twelve, inspired by Samuel Richardson’s international bestseller, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, explicitly making reference to the abuse and sexual violence at the core of the novel. On public display in the UK for the first time as part of Basic Instincts is a remarkable painting that still retains the power to shock. The Angel of Mercy (c.1746) depicts a desperate mother in the act of killing her baby, with the distant Foundling Hospital presented as the alternative. Set among Highmore’s tender portraits of mothers and children, family and friends, this show uniquely demonstrates the artist’s depth and variety.

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Supported by

  • ‘The Angel of Mercy’ still has the power to shock and, sadly, tells a very modern story

    Kate Chisholm, The Spectator
  • The Foundling Museum brings Joseph Highmore out of the shadows

    Apollo