The portraits of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) 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.
Eighteenth-century viewers appreciated these paintings differently than we do 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 celebrity, but also on the history of women and of painting. These are provocative women provocatively painted,” explains exhibition curator Benedict Leca.
Organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum in association with the San Diego Museum of Art, Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman is the first exhibition devoted to Thomas Gainsborough’s feminine portraiture, and the first to focus specifically on modernity and femininity in Georgian England from the perspective of Gainsborough’s groundbreaking portraits of women.
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 thirteen paintings from renowned museum collections in the United States and Britain to illuminate the role that Gainsborough’s extraordinary portraiture played in defining new, progressive feminine identities.
Among others on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum, September 18, 2010 – January 2, 2011 will be Mrs. Siddons (National Gallery, London), Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan (National Gallery, Washington), Giovanna Baccelli (Tate Britain), Grace Dalrymple (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Viscountess Ligonier (Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens).
The exhibition will also feature a small selection of period dresses from the Cincinnati Art 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 us to rethink the place of women in the eighteenth century, they also ask us 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.
In the eighteenth century, portraits were part of an active negotiation of social and gender relations, and the exhibition’s thesis is that a special complicity between artist and sitter formed the basis from which both conspired to upend traditional portraiture and calcified gender roles.
The exhibition was conceived by Benedict Leca, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings. Additional curatorial support for the exhibition’s presentation in San Diego has been provided by John Marciari, curator of European art, and Scot Jaffe, associate director for exhibitions and collections.
After premiering in Cincinnati this fall (September 18, 2010 – January 2, 2011) the exhibition will travel to the San Diego Museum of Art, where it will be on view from January 29, 2011 – May 1, 2011. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated, full-color catalog published by D Giles Limited, London, featuring essays by Benedict Leca, renowned costume historian Aileen Ribeiro, and art historian Amber Ludwig of Boston University. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.