Published: September 7, 2010
The portraits of Thomas Gainsborough (1727‱788) made him perhaps the most famous British artist of the late Eighteenth Century. Nobles, statesmen, musicians and the range of men and women of the period’s merchant class all sat for him. But it is his portraits of notorious society women †widely considered among the greatest of the Western tradition †which attracted the most attention.
On view September 18⁊anuary 2, “Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman” will premiere at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which organized the exhibition in association with the San Diego Museum of Art.
The exhibition is the first devoted to Gainsborough’s feminine portraiture, and the first to focus specifically on modernity and femininity in Georgian England from the perspective of the artist’s groundbreaking portraits of women.
Eighteenth Century viewers appreciated these paintings differently than the are today. In his own time, Gainsborough’s portraits of actresses, performers and courtesans were seen as unconventional, if not radical, not only because of the type of woman they portrayed, but also because of the unconventional way they were painted.
“These stunning portraits not only give us a perspective on the history of portrait painting and celebrity, but also on the history of women’s progressive self-fashioning, which equally deserves art historical recognition. These are provocative women provocatively painted,” explains exhibit curator Benedict Leca.
Coinciding with the comprehensive cleaning and restoration of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s iconic “Ann Ford (Mrs Thicknesse),” this exhibition unites a choice selection of 13 paintings from renowned museum collections in the United States and Britain to illuminate the role that Gainsborough’s portraiture played in defining new, progressive feminine identities.
Among others on view here will be “Mrs Siddons” (National Gallery, London), “Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan” (National Gallery, Washington), “Giovanna Baccelli” (Tate Britain), “Grace Dalrymple” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and “Viscountess Ligonier” (Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens).
The exhibition will also feature a small selection of period dresses from the museum’s rich fashion arts and textile collection, thereby further contextualizing Gainsborough’s portraits while affording visitors a view of the material accessories of the “modern woman.”
If Gainsborough’s portraits help one to rethink the place of women in the Eighteenth Century, they also ask the viewer to look anew at the formal specifics that made his portraits so important to ambitious women and their self-definition in the celebrity culture of the period. In his use of provocative postures and slashing brushwork, Gainsborough’s portraits of notorious women differed from those of his peers: they were the way he asserted his own place as the premier painter of modern life.
After premiering here, the exhibition will travel to the San Diego Museum of Art, where it will be on view from January 29 to May 1. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated, full-color catalog published by D Giles Limited.
The museum is at 953 Eden Park Drive. For information, www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org or 513-639-2995.
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