Gainsborough Family Album: A New Look at an Old Master

At Princeton, new insights into subtly political portraits of Gainsborough family members.

"Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew," 1773, Waddesdon Manor, UK. Using liquid paint in sweeping strokes, the artist finished a portrait of his apprentice in less than an hour.

It’s not often a university art museum corrals more than 40 drawings and oil paintings by a certified Old Master. “Gainsborough’s Family Album,” at the Princeton University Art Museum, is not just a coup in displaying little-seen portraits by Thomas Gainsborough until June 9; it also sheds light on the artist’s process and makes the argument that he was more modern than we thought. A revolutionary? No, but he was radical in technique, in concern for opportunities for his daughters, love of nature, sympathy for rural folk shut out of common land by enclosure, and his insistence on verisimilitude, in contrast to his rival Joshua Reynolds‘ classicizing, “ennobling” approach.

The body of portraits Gainsborough painted of his extended family is unprecedented in European art. Commissioned likenesses of family members in this pre-photography era were exclusively the province of the rich and famous. Gainsborough, son of a cloth merchant from the Suffolk market town of Sudbury, aspired to be a gentleman. His paintings of family members — even humble carpenters and tradespeople, as well as his wife and daughters — make a case that they are just as worthy of portraits as the aristocrats and royalty who were his chief financial support.

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“The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary,” c. 1748, National Gallery, London.

These portraits, done out of love rather than for pounds sterling, have both personal and professional significance. Freed from the onerous need to flatter his subjects, the family portraits provided a blank canvas where he could dabble with novel effects and advance his art. They reflected not only affection but ambition. As James Steward, director of the Princeton Museum, said in a recent interview, “It’s partly through paintings of his family, in which he did not have to worry about directly pleasing a patron, where he was able to be more experimental and push his painterly technique. What begins with these paintings becomes something he deploys across his practice.”

The exhibition traces Gainsborough’s development from a naive, provincial painter at age 20 to his exalted status as master of Grand Manner portraiture when he died at age 61. The earliest painting, The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary (c. 1748), portrays the trio in an idyllic rural setting. “He wanted,” Steward explained, “people to understand him as if he were the social peer of the landed gentry.” This is the only painting that shows where Gainsborough started as a talented but unformed artist. The figures are awkward, stiff and doll-like. The ruddy face of his toddler daughter (who died around age two) seems troll-like.

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“The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly,” probably about 1756, National Gallery, London.

Gainsborough soon progressed to accomplished, life-size portraits of extended-family members: brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, in-laws. But his trajectory is no more telling than in 10 portraits of his two surviving daughters. The exhibition’s photo-mural of one of his most charming paintings — called the most ambitious portrait done in Britain in the 1750s — shows the little girls chasing a butterfly. The painting marks a clear leap forward, depicting the figures moving through the landscape. Most portraits at the time portrayed sitters solidly planted in static poses, but Gainsborough’s younger daughter animates the scene by stepping forward, arm outstretched, pinafore swept back by wind or motion.

The artist’s letters and comments recorded by friends, as well as the daughters’ portraits from childhood to early adulthood (the emotional core of the exhibition) reveal how Gainsborough was, as Steward said, “perpetually caught up in the lives of his daughters and worried for their future and their ability to survive.”

“Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters, Playing with a Cat,” c. 1760-61, National Gallery, London.

Portraits of the girls indicate how the concept of childhood was changing. “The very construct of the idea of the family as more an affective unit than an economic unit was emerging,” Steward said. Gainsborough’s desire to paint the little girls over and over reflects a shift towards viewing childhood as a precious, transient phase of life to be treasured and protected. Without this context, it’s hard to see how unconventional Gainsborough’s work was. “He was breaking with the past pretty dramatically,” Steward said.

Another way Gainsborough was in the avant-garde was the loose brushwork and freedom of handling he employed in family portraits. Although critics and patrons complained about the commissioned portraits’ “roughness” and lack of finish — contrary to the enameled (or “licked”) smoothness expected — Gainsborough reveled in his scumbled smears, dashes and streaks that lend dynamism and vibrancy. He termed these energetic marks, which resolve into legibility at a distance, a “Variety of lively touches and surprising Effects to make the Heart dance.”

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Steward noted that (besides Gainsborough’s eminence as a portraitist and landscape painter) his contribution lies precisely in this more impressionistic brushwork, as well as his ability to capture a moment by painting rapidly, producing a remarkable likeness in a single hour. Gainsborough insisted that his vigorous paint handing (seen mostly in the unfinished backgrounds and some costume details) gives “force to the effect when viewed at a proper distance.”

In 1921 when Henry Huntington snapped up Gainsborough’s van Dyck-influenced The Blue Boy (often dubbed “the world’s most beautiful picture”) the painter’s elegant portraits were most fashionable. Now his status as a precursor to (and role model for) Constable, Turner, and the Impressionists makes him seem more like a modern painter of sensibility than an old fogey mired in the Age of Reason.

Gainsborough, “Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters, at their Drawing,” c. 1763-4, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA.

The portrait Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters at their Drawing, done when they were teenagers and just after Gainsborough survived a life-threatening illness, demonstrates their father’s concern for their future. Mary and Margaret hold drawing implements, evidence of their father’s hope that they could support themselves as landscape artists if something happened to him. At a time of very limited opportunities and rights for women, he advocated training them in a profession, which would allow them to be independent of the marriage market, able to provide for themselves.

The only finished, full-length formal portrait of the two, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters (c. 1774), portrays them as grand ladies, the equal of aristocrats in opulent attire, standing in an embracing landscape. Gainsborough at this point had a soaring reputation as a favored portraitist to royalty. He shows his daughters as genteel society women in their early twenties.

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“Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters,” c. 1774, now in a private collection.

Gainsborough, who had only one apprentice (his nephew Gainsborough Dupont), diverged from common practice in this and other portraits by completing figures, clothing and background himself. While the style-arbiter Joshua Reynolds only painted a subject’s head and hands, leaving other areas to a bevy of assistants, Gainsborough painted the entire scene. He also rebelled against Reynolds’ dictate, as president of the Royal Academy, that subjects should be idealized and attired in vaguely classical garb, the mise-en-scène stocked with draperies, classical statuary, columns, balustrades and other highfalutin props. Gainsborough insisted on a more naturalistic pose, normal clothes and fidelity to the sitter’s actual features.

His use of arcadian landscape backgrounds (his true passion, surpassing what he deplored as the “curs’d Face Business” of portraiture) perhaps had a political motivation: a response to enclosure, early industrialization and the movement of population to urban centers. His “cottage door” paintings, in which he inserted family members as models in rustic scenes, are nostalgic evocations of a lost golden age. With the Enclosure Acts, which denied peasants the right to use common land, and the consolidation of small farms into large ones, rural folk lost their traditional way of life. Gainsborough was “cognizant that all these social changes created an enormous problem of rural poverty and impacted freedom of movement,” says Steward. The resulting migration to cities caused a sharp divide between the affluent and the have-nots.

Yet, because he hoped to sell these genre paintings, Gainsborough was forced to prettify the facts. The barefoot figures wear torn, tattered clothes that clearly show their poverty, but they do not appear wretchedly hungry. Hogarth’s satire aside, social realism was absent then.

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In our time, family pictures are omnipresent, captured on a smart phone to disseminate on social media and display as framed prints. Gainsborough was ahead of his time in his zeal for creating images of his family. “A subtext to our show,” Steward told me, “is to suggest there’s relevance — even timeliness — in works of this kind.”

You wouldn’t think these works have anything new to tell us. This period of British art is considered drab and stodgy — a detour in the quickening cavalcade of European art. (Imagine if our century produced mainly heroic poses of Mar-a-Lago socialites as its primary art.) Yet they illustrate a moment when social values were changing. Just as Gainsborough liberated his brushwork into fluid, sweeping strokes that challenge the viewer to complete the image in the mind’s eye, so too did he loosen and enlarge the image of family at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.