Friday, March 25, 2011

Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman

Mrs. Sarah Siddons, oil on canvas, c1785 by Thomas Gainsborough
National Gallery London

Although it may seem to be a contradiction of terms to describe an 18th century woman as "modern", this exhibition of paintings by Sir Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) at the San Diego Museum of Fine Art illuminates the painter's progressive ideas about women. One of the notable paintings on display is his portrait of his two daughters, Mary and Margaret, who both hold sketchbooks in their hands reflecting his ambition for them to have their own careers as artists and independent women.

Many of the other portraits on display are of women with notorious reputations including the beautiful cello-playing Anne Ford, the dancer Giovanna Bacceli, the infamous Duchess of Devonshire, and the courtesan Grace Dalrymple,  mistress to both of the French Duke of Orleans and the British Prince of Wales (the future George IV) and who also survived imprisonment in the Bastille during the French revolution. The exhibition highlights Gainsborough's depiction of these sitters as self-assured and "modern" women.

Not only was Gainsborough progressive in his portrayal of these women but his brushwork is a forerunner to impressionism. His loose painterly brushstrokes in the gowns worn by the sitters conveys a sense of movement and an underlying sense of the body within these larger than life portraits.

Mrs. Ann Ford, oil on canvas c.1760 by Thomas Gainsborough
Cincinnati Art Museum
I have to say that standing in the middle of the ten portraits by Gainsborough in this gallery is nothing short of glorious. The works come from a diverse group of museums including the National Gallery and the Tate in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Huntington in Los Angeles. Also on display are 18th century stays and two gowns from the Cincinnati Art Museum.

I was mesmerized by the story behind the portrait of Ann Ford (shown above). An accomplished cello player, she played the instrument "side-saddle" style because putting it between her legs would be unseemly. Being a cello player myself, I can attest to how difficult this would be. And yet, she played well enough to play concerts. In Gainsborough's portrait of Ann Ford, her cello sits in the background and he conveys the sparkle of her beauty and her accomplishments by adding crushed up glass blended into his oil paints for her dress.

Giovanna Baccelli, oil on canvas c1782 by Thomas Gainsborough
Tate London
The other painting that caught my eye as the portrait of the dancer Giovanna Baccelli (c1782). She is depicted in costume for the ballet Les Amans Surpris (The Surprised Lovers). Her yellow and blue robe a la polonaise is very much like the costume that I acquired from the Opera Atelier. Remember this post?The dresses are uncannily alike and I'm guessing that my costume was inspired by this painting by Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough and The Modern Woman is on at the San Diego Museum of Fine Art until May 1, 2011. If you cannot get there, a beautiful exhibition catalogue is available.

The San Diego Museum of Art
1450 El Prado
Balboa Park
San Diego, CA 92101

Photo credits: Images from the San Diego Museum of Fine Art.