Gainsborough’s Touch

Exhibitions can be flat-out beautiful and they can bristle with ideas. When they are both you might want to send up a rocket in celebration, but perhaps the best thing is simply to go back and look at the show again.

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s extraordinary gathering of paintings in Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman invites second visits. Curator Benedict Leca’s interesting thesis, that “a special complicity between Gainsborough and women like Ann Ford formed a basis from which they conspired together to confound both traditional portraiture and calcified gender roles” plays out in a series of ravishing pictures.

The exhibition is not large, only thirteen paintings, but the presence of these women is felt the moment one enters the gallery. The space is divided by partial walls so that an intimacy exists; this is perhaps as close as you are going to come to an 18th century artist’s showroom, maintained alongside his studio for the attention of prospective customers.

Portrait painting in the eighteenth century was commercial, competitive, and had a particular role in that complicated society. Leca writes, in his catalog essay, that the “mass market for portraits…fed an exploding discourse on its meaning and merits.” Copied and distributed as well as sometimes moved around and displayed, these paintings did not just go home to be hung above the mantelpiece. They were in fact public statements.

Within that society a certain kind of woman particularly wanted to make a public statement, and it is these women who are the subjects of this exhibition. They were “demi-reps,” that is, those with half a reputation, who pushed society’s boundaries in one way or another. There are celebrated courtesans here, an actress whose private life was as circumspect as her profession was questionable, a beauty who eloped to get married, women who saw no reason to confine their musical talents to private gatherings and so performed in public. Even the delicately loving portrait of the artist’s two daughters breaks from convention in that these girls, twelve and thirteen years old, are shown with painting implements as they were being taught to become artists. Not lady-like amateurs, but professionals. If husbands did not appear there would be need to support themselves.

If these women pushed society’s boundaries, it’s also true that Gainsborough pushed at painting’s boundaries. Prodigiously talented, primarily self-taught, dangerously French in his style, the weaver’s son first made a name in Bath and moved from there to London and an uneasy relationship with the Royal Academy and, famously, Joshua Reynolds. That touchy rivalry is reflected in the exhibition, where the label for Gainsborough’s Mrs. Siddons carries a small reproduction of Reynolds’ earlier portrait of the actress, in full thespian mode as Tragic Muse. Gainsborough presents a sophisticated woman about town, superbly dressed, painted in a manner that reflects his own admiration for Anthony van Dyke. Here’s the subversive bit: Leca’s catalog essay notes that “Siddons is situated close to the picture plane and therefore proximately to us as viewers before the painting—likely nearer than contemporary manners might have allowed.”

The portrait of Ann Ford, an iconic painting in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s own collection, is the earliest work in the exhibition and was in fact the springboard for the ideas the exhibition puts forth. Ford, later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse, pained her family by performing music on the public stage and had well-developed opinions on the importance of feminine accomplishments.

Thicknesse and Gainsborough were friends and shared with Miss Ford a serious interest in music. The viola da gamba in the background of this painting would later figure in a disagreement between the three, the details of which are hard to sort out today, but its inclusion in the composition is a deliberately provocative element. Would a discreet young woman place such a thing between her legs? In public? Yes, if the young woman were Ann Ford, who also is likely to have had her own input to—or at the least full cooperation in—the rather daring manner of her pose. That sinuous, serpentine line, the hand to the ear, the crossed legs—crossed legs!—all this was just over the line from strict respectability. But of course she looks terrific. And those who have known her in the Museum’s English galleries down the years recognize that a recent cleaning has done her a world of good.

The Ford portrait is one of six large works, up to eight feet high, hung in two facing rows. Each has its own backing, a foot or so out from the gallery wall, in what seems to be accommodation to the artist’s very definite views on the hanging of his work. In a ten-foot high room (the backing looks to be about that height) he wanted a full length work two to three feet from the floor. The immediacy is real.

If you wish to see the progression of Gainsborough’s style, ever moodier and more suggestive than precise, run your eye along the side beginning with Ford, then to her immediate neighbor and then the work beyond that; following this look to the painting directly across (Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, a name that could come out of a novel) and move past the dancer Giovanna Baccelli to Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Sheridan, wife of the dramatist and the latest of these six works, faces Ann Ford, the earliest. This quietly chronological progression speaks to the exhibition’s thoughtful installation in a gallery that has the awkward element of entry from either end.

Ideally, one enters from the balcony overlooking the Museum’s Great Hall. Coming in from the opposite direction, above the entrance lobby, is a little like using the back door. Attention has been paid to making that access work, but the full flavor of the exhibition is best caught at the other end, passing the slick white neon letters announcing Modern Woman and coming down a ramp into the show. A statement of the exhibition’s purpose is inscribed here and is worth reading. This is a show with intellectual content as well as gorgeous paintings.

Coming in at this end allows you to begin with the small works, which might be anti-climatic seen after the full-bore, look-at-me-now paintings in the center section. Five head and shoulder portraits hang in an intimate space staked out between the entry ramps. Two of these works, not mentioned in the catalog so perhaps not traveling with the others to the second site of the show, the San Diego Museum of Art, are from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s permanent collection. Their purpose seems to be to illustrate a popular style of portrait, “the marriage portrait,” commissioned by husbands with young wives. These particular young wives apparently didn’t do anything to fit the exhibition’s paradigm, but the paintings show us the artist’s bread and butter work. Also here we see The Honorable Anne (Batson) Fane, a late piece that suggests a forceful woman but, as Leca himself says in the catalogue, “the magic has vanished.” Mrs. Maria Anne Fitzherbert, (1784) also seen in this space, did indeed push social boundaries. The year after this portrait was made she married the Prince of Wales in an illegal and unrecognized ceremony. She appears thoughtful and, it must be said, rather plain. The painting is not wholly finished.

The delight of these small works is young Miss Elizabeth Linley (ca. 1775), sensitively portrayed and seemingly looking to her right. If she looked far enough, in this exhibition, she could see her decade-older self, after her elopement with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in the later portrait.

The meat of the exhibition, however, is in the large works. Here we can see exactly what an anonymous eighteenth century painter, quoted on the wall at the proper entry to the exhibition, meant when he wrote that Gainsborough’s manner of painting “is so new, so original, that I cannot find words to convey any idea of it. I do not know that any artists, living or dead, have managed their [brushes] in that manner.” And there it is. Gainsborough’s “touch,” the increasingly painterly-ness of the work, as though he’s painting for its own sweet sake, coupled with an ability to suggest personality in subtle ways—this gives his work its individual stamp.

The beautiful Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier, next to Ann Ford, looks straight out of the canvas with a gaze that suggests no one get in her way. Her neighbor to the other side, Anne, Countess of Chesterfield, at first glance is so circumspect that you wonder what she’s doing here, with the demi-reps, but then you notice that like Ann Ford, her legs are crossed.

Mrs. Elliott stands straight and tall, a splendid swath of gold satin setting off her elegance. The dancer Giovanna Baccelli is caught in mid-step, tambourine carelessly at one side, a dream of a dress portrayed in a marvel of brush strokes. And Mrs. Sheridan is perhaps as lovely as anyone here, in a painting that could be a poem. Mrs. Siddons and Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters, each smaller paintings, anchor this space at either end and in their very different ways hold their own.

Gainsborough liked these women. He knew what they were up to. He applauded all the way.

The exhibition catalog is an admirable production, with handsome page layout, good color plates of the works and wonderful full page details that could double as abstract paintings. The details series progress from higher to lower in the individual works, you’ll notice if you keep alert. Leca’s catalog essay is full of interest, as is that by costume historian Aileen Ribeiro. The third essay, by art historian Amber Ludwig, is less centered on its subject, “Fashioning Feminine Identity in Eighteenth Century London” and spends what seems to me excessive attention to decades before Gainsborough was at work and reports on the Ottoman Empire at that time.

Two 18th century dresses from the Museum’s costume collection are a useful addition to the exhibition, as they show us details of dress Gainsborough’s airy brush doesn’t bother with. There is also a vintage set of whalebone stays, if you wonder how those women kept that shape.

These works surely are seen together here for the first time. Painted over a period of a quarter of a century, they are unlikely to have been on view concurrently in the artist’s show room. The time span adds interest to the show, the paintings enhance one another, the premise expands our knowledge. An altogether satisfactory exhibition.

– Jane Durrell

Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, organized by Benedict Leca at the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, Tel: 513.639.2995, Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through Jan. 2, 2011.

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