Reynolds roots for the antihero in this smoky, impassioned, even tragic portrait of a British officer loathed by American patriots for his brutal reputation in the war of independence and who later defended the slave trade as MP for Liverpool. Tarleton had two fingers missing after being shot in the right hand and his disability is clearly shown here as he poses in the midst of battle, with cannon, gunsmoke and terrified horses. Clearly the spectacular setting has been concocted, for this is a studio portrait, not a war photo. Reynolds made a very good living from painting Georgian high society yet he had serious ambitions for his work, and British art in general: in his lectures at the Royal Academy, he argued that the highest genre is “history painting”. Here he shows that a portrait can communicate the grandeur of history, with a classical gravity that commands attention.
• National Gallery, London