It’s not the popular novel by Edith Wharton – in fact, the painting came first.
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) painted many influential paintings in his time. His favoritism for the “Grand Style” of painting popularized a noble, metaphorical painting style that incorporated Renaissance and Baroque methods into portraiture. Reynolds trained under Thomas Hudson in London and, according to rumor, became the better artist, causing Hudson to become jealous and let him go from his study.
In this particular painting titled Age of Innocence, Reynolds used this Grand Style for character study of the little girl. He originally titled the painting a little girl, but an engraving of the same artwork in 1794 was named Age of Innocence. This was not Reynolds’ name – someone else chose the moniker, and it stuck. The public received the painting with high praise.
Many years later, experts discovered that the original painting had been painted over Reynolds’ earlier A Strawberry Girl; the hands in Innocence even keep the original hands, unpainted over. This may have been because of issues with paint loss in Strawberry Girl; thankfully there are other versions of the painting by Reynolds, so it has not been completely lost underneath.
No one knows for sure who the model was for Innocence. A descendant of Reynolds named Sir Robert Edgcumbe declared her the great-niece of Reynolds named Theophila Gwatkin, who would have been three years old when the painting was finished. Others say that the model was Lady Anne Spencer, the daughter of the fourth Duke of Marlborough.
No one knows for sure who the model is, but what is certain is the popularity of the painting. One man claimed it “the commercial face of childhood”. The painting was reproduced in prints and other products, including many painted replicas by both students and professionals.
Many believe that Edith Wharton purposely named her popular 1920 book after the painting.
The original painting now hangs at the Tate in London.