Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman (Review)

Unconventional portraits of notorious 'demireps' from the 18th century

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In the Cincinnati Art Museum’s new exhibition Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, I learned a new word. “Demireps” were women with less-than-respectable reputations. They were actresses, singers, dancers, courtesans and mistresses who rejected the accepted notions of femininity, made their own money, gambled, left their husbands and — gasp — wore French fashions. The breathtaking portraits by the 18th-century English master reveal that they also attempted to manage their images.

At first glance, it might be hard for our modern sensibilities to understand what was so controversial about these gorgeous portraits. The exhibition’s text does a good job explaining their unconventionality. For instance, consider the portrait of renowned soprano Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, wife of the English satirical playwright. She looks demure enough, wearing a pink gown while seated in a pastoral landscape. That landscape, which appears so innocuous to us now, was questionable then. While landscape was often used as a backdrop for portraits in the 18th century, Mrs. Sheridan is placed within the landscape, signaling she is allied with nature, outside the constraints of urban society. A few sheep graze in the distance, connecting her with the naughty shepherdesses of popular literature and French Rococo paintings.

The exhibition’s introduction states that Gainsborough was sought after to paint the portraits of notorious society women, and that he worked in concert with his sitters to create a carefully crafted image. Some played up their notoriety more than others.

Perhaps the most commanding personality on the gallery’s walls is Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier. Her intense gaze and voluptuous curves give her a forceful magnetism. Even before learning her story, it’s evident she was quite a force. The Viscountess leans on a column decorated with seashells, the symbol of Venus, and a sculpture of Cupid’s head rests nearby. Both details link the sitter with matters of the heart. On the top of the column stands a bacchante figure, one of Bacchus’ female companions, suggesting hedonism. Gainsborough dressed his sitter in classical attire that clings to her hourglass figure. Finally, she wears her hair in a French style, typically connected with eroticism.

It turns out that the Viscountess was the center of a highly public scandal — she left her husband for an Italian playwright. We might think this is not surprising since most upper-class marriages were not based on love or attraction but were instead social contracts. However, running off with another man could ruin a society woman’s reputation forever. Gainsborough caused quite a stir when he exhibited the painting while the scandal was still hot.

While the grand, full-length portraits steal the show, a smaller, more subdued painting reveals Gainsborough’s radical views towards women. His “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters” shows his two girls, Mary and Margaret, holding drawing tools in an art studio. While it was fashionable for young women to learn drawing and watercolor as hobbies, Gainsborough trained his daughters to be professional artists, in case they should “miss getting husbands,” according to the museum’s description. This notion was truly revolutionary for the 18th century, and might give some insight into why Gainsborough willingly embraced women who bucked society’s conventions.

Another star of the exhibition is the elfin-faced Giovanna Baccelli, a ballet dancer and mistress of the Duke of Dorset. Gainsborough portrayed Baccelli in a Little-Bo-Peep-style costume dancing through the landcape. Such animation was highly unusual during an age of mannered, formal portraits.

The exhibition brings together paintings from several of the world’s great museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; London’s National Gallery; and the Tate Britain. The Cincinnati Art Museum’s own recently conserved “Portrait of Ann Ford,” itself a Gainsborough masterpiece, holds its own among the others. The artist pictured Ford, a controversial string musician, surrounded by musical instruments and scores. While young women were encouraged to dabble in music, especially piano, they were not expected to play too passionately, and definitely not in public as Ford did. Contemporary audiences were shocked by Ford’s casual pose, especially her crossed legs which were considered unladylike.

It’s fascinating to think about public figures of the past crafting a spicy persona with the help of a master artist. Today’s celebrity “demireps” such as Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton could use someone like Gainsborough on their side.

THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH AND THE MODERN WOMAN is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 2. Get show and museum details here.

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