European Art · Exhibitions

Meet the Gainsborough Family

This time last year, DailyArt Magazine asked me to write an article about Thomas Gainsborough for his birthday (May 14). Looking around for a fun angle, I found Gainsborough’s many portraits of his daughters, and I decided to focus my article on them. So, I was really excited when I found out that most of those paintings, which normally reside in England, are currently on display in Gainsborough’s Family Album at the Princeton University Art Museum. I rushed over to see them, and I’m so glad that I did! They are just charming, and it made me so happy to see them in person. It’s a great exhibition overall.

Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter, c. 1748. National Gallery, London. Photo via National Gallery website (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Gainsborough’s Family Album is made up of forty-four works. They include paintings and drawings of his wife, daughters, father, siblings, in-laws, niece, nephews, cousin, and pets, as well as some self portraits. Many are on loan from the National Gallery in London, where the exhibition originated, and other London museums.

This is a feel-good exhibition that made me smile. It’s a view into Gainsborough’s family, personality, and private life, which isn’t a common angle for an exhibition. The works included give a sense of him experimenting and making art for his own tastes, which definitely doesn’t feel the same as his formal, commissioned portraits. The family wasn’t perfect. The Gainsboroughs’ marriage was often turbulent, for example, and older daughter Mary struggled with her mental health in later life. These facts are mentioned, but they don’t drag down the mood of the exhibition. However, I’m not suggesting that the show is all fluff. The curators demonstrate many key aspects of Gainsborough’s style through this theme, and I learned a lot. The show is a comfortable length. I viewed each work in detail and read all the wall texts without feeling tired or overwhelmed by the end.

Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of the Artist's Two Daughters
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist’s Two Daughters, c. 1758. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

Gainsborough came from a humble background – his family was in the textile industry – but he worked hard to present himself and his family as equal to his wealthy and refined clientele. He did this in all the portraits of display, where he and family appear sophisticated, confident, and well-dressed. The exhibition opens with a portrait of Gainsborough, his wife, and his first-born daughter (see top image). It’s very much like the commissioned portraits of country gentlemen and their families that Gainsborough later became known for, even though he wasn’t quite as sophisticated an artist yet. Elsewhere in the exhibition, I learned that Gainsborough also wanted to show himself as an equal to great old masters, like Anthony Van Dyck, whom he emulated in his famous Blue Boy. European artists worked for years to raise their status and gain the respect they felt their profession deserves. Gainsborough seems to have been very successful at it.

Gainsborough often used a loose style of painting. It is especially prominent in these private family portraits that didn’t have to satisfy a patron. Many of the paintings in the exhibition contrast very finished and detailed heads with deliberately unfinished hands, clothing, hats, etc. In some portraits, like the one shown below, the torso is just a sepia-colored sketch. Except for the most extreme cases, it somehow doesn’t feel like a contradiction. The contrasts are obvious, particularly in person, but they don’t bother me at all.

(Added 6/16/19: Author Cynthia Saltzman has characterized Gainsborough’s painting style by saying that he “used brushstrokes to evoke rather than describe”. This is a perfect description of the quality I alluded to above. Saltzman, Cynthia. Old Masters, New Worlds: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures. New York: Viking, 2008. P. 102.)

Thomas Gainsborough Self-Portrait
Thomas Gainsborough, Self-Portrait, 1754. Private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

The painting in which this contrast is most striking and a bit jarring, is a portrait of a Margaret, the younger daughter, playing her lute. Apparently, this painting was only rediscovered shortly before this exhibition, and it’s now appearing in public for the first time since the 19th century. It hadn’t come to the public’s attention yet when I wrote my article last year, so it was exciting to discover it here.

Gainsborough had a sense of humor (which British art historian and television personality Sister Wendy Beckett called “naughty” with obvious delight). That sense of humor is definitely visible in this exhibition. It appears most clearly in the paired but mix-matched portraits of Gainsborough’s sister, Sarah, and brother-in-law, Philip. Sarah looks fashionable and distinguished, on par with any older noblewoman Gainsborough ever painted, while Philip is depicted with messy hair and a suit that the wall text says was seriously out of fashion. Both are sympathetic and respectful portrayals, but the husband and wife don’t look like they go together at all. There’s also a lot of playfulness in the paintings of Mr. & Mrs. Gainsborough’s pet dogs.

Thomas Gainsborough Tristam and Fox
Thomas Gainsborough, Tristam and Fox, c. 1775-85. Tate Britain, London. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

A lot is made of how unusual it was for an artist of this era to depict his family so often and how rare it was for a non-wealthy family to have many personal images in the pre-photography age. We take quick and easy images so much for granted today that it’s strange to remember this wasn’t always the case. Following this theme, an adjacent gallery includes a small selection of later artists’ photographs depicting children. I don’t feel that this secondary exhibition adds much to the conversation, but I did enjoy a charming 1930s photo of two young children laughing on the ground.

Gainsborough’s Family Album is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum (on the Princeton University Campus in New Jersey) through June 9th. The museum is open every day except Mondays, and admission is free. Visit the museum’s website for more details.

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