This painting was acquired from the studio sale of Gainsborough Dupont (the artist's nephew) in 1797; it was probably therefore in Gainsborough studio at the time of his death in 1788. It is either a finished sketch or an unfinished picture, probably the latter. The Prince acquired it for almost nothing.
This is the only surviving mythological painting by Gainsborough. The sketchy style is reminiscent of the Renaissance artist Titian and anticipates Impressionism. The story comes from Book III of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses': Actaeon stumbled upon the naked Diana and her nymphs. As punishment, the goddess threw water into his face, turning him into a stag, to be hunted to death by his own hounds. Gainsborough, like many artists before him, has responded to the brief passages of natural description with which Ovid sets the scene for his mythological encounters in order to paint a blending of figures and landscape into a single atmospheric unity. Gainsborough, like Titian, also explores the idea of metamorphosis: Actaeon turns from man to beast; the other figures seem similarly to borrow qualities from the natural world: their white bodies soft and flowing like water, their hair profuse like foliage.
Purchased by George IV when Prince of Wales, 1797