The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, Gainsborough’s Family Album, captures the artist’s affection for his family, says our contributor Jessica Lim.
There are multiple narratives that could be told in an exhibition on eighteenth-century portraiture. One could narrate the famous rivalry between the two leading portrait painters of the later eighteenth century, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, both founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts, though the latter fell out with the Academy and the former became enshrined as its first president. Alternatively, a story could be told of the development of the conversational piece, as family portraits were moved to outdoor landscapes or to the intimate space of the sitting room, in the artwork of Philip Mercier, William Hogarth, and Johan Zoffany.
Gainsborough’s Family Album, however, takes a much more intimate approach. Featuring around 50 of Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings of his family and himself, the exhibition provides a glimpse into an artist’s tender affection for his family, and into Gainsborough’s growing confidence in his own artistry. It is difficult to discern a single narrative that is presented through the exhibition, but then, much like Gainsborough’s painting style, the overriding impression that remains with one long after leaving the museum is that of passion, perpetual movement, and the fleetingness of impression itself.
The first painting in the exhibition is the only image one sees upon entering; it is a moment of pause, in which the viewer sees Gainsborough’s family as the young artist sought for himself to be perceived at the start of his career. It is, in some ways, almost deceptive: Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter is halfway family portrait and half a conversation piece, with the landscape filling more space than Gainsborough and his wife, who sit nonchalantly by a pond while their young daughter leans against her mother and their dog laps the water at the pond’s edge. It is well executed, but there is a lack of motion, and an overwhelming feeling of stasis which grounds the work. It is, as the information plates on the wall suggest, part of the young Gainsborough’s attempt to use art to give himself and his family the air of respectability: Gainsborough has positioned himself and his wife much as he would position landed gentry couples, such as Mr and Mrs Andrews.
In the first full room of paintings, Gainsborough’s sketches and paintings exude an air of experimentation and playfulness. Can he make his father appear a sober and respectable member of the gentry, with no hint of financial troubles? What of the sketch beside his self-portrait; is it Gainsborough showing his interest in the process of art itself, or was it a preparatory sketch about which he forgot? Why has Gainsborough, the portrait artist who knows portraiture convention, painted himself in a rural gentry landowner’s hat and not in an artist’s garb? The extent to which Gainsborough is purposefully using art as a way of distributing social capital to himself and his family, or to which he is playfully manipulating it, is left to the viewers’ interpretations. Certainly, Gainsborough is playfully aware of the ways in which portraits can be used to bring social capital in his paintings of his sister, Sarah Dupont, and her husband, Philip: Sarah is dressed in the finery of an upper-middle-class lady, while Philip is painted as if having just finished a day’s work as a carpenter. The portraits, painted as a pair, are humorously mismatched, and Gainsborough’s sense of comedy in contrast shines through.
The sense of playfulness, and a zest for life, animates the best and the most touching of Gainsborough’s paintings. Gainsborough’s paintings of his daughters capture the effervescence and evanescence of youth, as Mary holds Margaret back from pricking her finger on a thistle when the young girls chase a butterfly. In an unfinished painting, the girls smile composedly at their father while a kitten, not yet fully painted, squirms out of the girls’ arms. In a painting that had previously been cut up and is now restored into one piece, Mary fixes a hairpiece in Margaret’s hair, showcasing moments of great tenderness and affection. The commentary on the walls notes how these paintings demonstrate Gainsborough’s development of his “trademark feathery brushstrokes”, the roughness of which imbues Gainsborough’s work with depth and motion.
There is something almost impressionistic about several of Gainsborough’s portraits. In Gainsborough’s 1777 portrait of Mary, her gaze determinedly avoids the viewer and there is a sense of focus and purpose in her brows. Yet her elaborate outfit – her hat, the frills on her dress, fade into the background, leaving only an impression of Mary’s elegance as the finishing touches to her strength of soul. In a similar way, Gainsborough’s portrait of Edward Gardiner points Edward’s piercing gaze toward the viewer, but Edward’s clothes are almost impressionistic in their lack of detail. Yet, despite the ‘finish’ on the clothing – something Gainsborough was eminently capable of painting, as evidenced by other portraits of his family members in the millinery business – Gainsborough signed the portrait, insisting upon its finished status. One can almost hear his paintings ask, ‘What does it mean to ‘finish’ a work of art? What is ‘polish’?’
This question dominates Gainsborough’s artistic depictions of his daughters. His fatherly pride is evident; he paints Mary and Margaret in the eighteenth-century equivalent of what we might describe today as candid shots; and he also casts them as embodiments of Romantic sensibility and passion. Margaret, in particular, is cast both as ideal sensibility, with an ecstatic upward gaze, yet safely framed within a trompe l’oeil, in a portrait that brims with emotion and yet suggests a safe aesthetic control of passion. In a later portrait, c. 1777–78, Margaret plays a cittern; the brushstrokes are vague, and Margaret’s unfocused gaze implies that she is the embodiment of passion itself. It almost seems like a concession on Gainsborough’s part, both as an artist and as a father, when he paints Mary and Margaret as grown women, eligible for the marriage market: this full-length painting, much like his first painting of himself and his wife, is characterised by stasis rather than movement, almost as if Gainsborough’s artistry itself chafes under the constraints of the expectations that he and his family will perform culturally polite roles in mercantile Britain.
In the last rooms, there is a resurgence in the number of Gainsborough’s paintings of his wife. In one stately and self-aware portrait, Margaret Gainsborough née Burr is depicted as Juno. The National Portrait Gallery highlights the unconventional nature of Gainsborough’s classical reference, suggesting that Gainsborough is poking fun at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s propensity to elevate his subjects by invoking classical allusions by using a classical allusion that references Gainsborough’s own marital infidelities. Whatever the case, it is clear in the small portraits Gainsborough gifted to his wife in later years, that he felt great affection for Margaret.
The final room is dedicated to other artists’ impressions of Gainsborough, following the latter’s untimely death by cancer. Zoffany’s focused portrait, which Gainsborough’s daughters apparently declared a better likeness of their father than his self-portrait, shows in detail a man with a long, straight nose. Yet Gainsborough’s self-portrait captures a focus and intensity of gaze that eludes Zoffany’s homage to his colleague. It is this focus and intensity that informs the placement of the exhibition’s final painting – the artist’s own chosen ‘final painting’ which he hung on his easel as he lay dying in bed. Gainsborough Dupont depicts Gainsborough’s apprentice and nephew, with a determined gaze, and an impressionistic outfit against a dull brown background. The colouring is Van Dyck, Gainsborough’s artistic idol, and the style is consistent with Gainsborough’s lively depiction of his sitters’ faces, and his impressionistic depiction of their outfits. The painting, resting against the outline of an easel in the wall, is a statement of Gainsborough’s artistic style, and the declaration of Gainsborough’s hoped-for successor. It is with this impression of determination, artistic virtuosity, and artistic impetuousness, that Gainsborough’s Family Album leads its viewer from the intimate exhibition space, and into the wide space of the admissions foyer.
Gainsborough’s Family Album is showing at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 3rd February 2019. Click here for more information.