Fancies was a term introduced by the art chronicler George Vertue in 1737 to characterise the paintings of the French artist Philip Mercier (1689–1760), which depicted scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination or storytelling, a “blend of sentiment and nostalgia”. In Britain, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) was a notable adopter of the genre, especially during the last decade of his life, and to his examples, particularly those featuring the children of beggars or peasants, his great rival Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) gave the name fancy pictures.
According to the art critic Martin Postle, “the common element [of a fancy picture] is the notion of a character study of an individual, or small group of individuals presented in the form of a portrait”. The term has never been clearly defined, but Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) gave “something that pleases and entertains” as one of the meanings of the word fancy.
Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting, and his fancy pictures gave him an opportunity to place rural characters into his landscapes. Reynolds, on the other hand, saw fancy pictures as a way to elide the distinction between portraiture and historical painting, as in his depiction of the notorious prostitute Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra. Indeed, many fancy pictures embody an element of eroticism, as in maids and street traders selling their wares “in more or less overt fashion”.
By the 1760s, fancy pictures although still popular, had become rather hackneyed, “consciously charming portraits … produced for a mass market”. That is, until Joseph Wright of Derby injected new life into the genre with his series of candlelight pictures, with their dramatic use of chiaroscuroChiaroscuro, literally light-dark in Italian, is a technique used in the visual arts that makes use of light and shadow to define three-dimensional objects and surfaces. to produce “something more profound and more unsettling”.
Fancy pictures were at the height of their popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To a modern viewer their recurring themes of “coy young women and ragged children” may seem overly sentimental, but that should not detract from their technical quality as works of art.