Art review: ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman’ at the San Diego Museum of Art


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SAN DIEGO -- Thomas Gainsborough’s name will be forever tightly yoked to ‘Blue Boy,’ the riveting portrait of young Jonathan Buttall, painted around 1770, standing atop a windswept hill in the English countryside and dressed in the satin garb of an earlier aristocratic era. It’s the most famous portrait in America. The painting’s brilliance, lofted by dazzling brushwork, has a lot to do with its celebrity.

So does money. When railroad baron Henry E. Huntington decided to buy ‘Blue Boy’ from the Duke of Westminster in 1921 and bring it from England to Los Angeles, he spent more money than was ever known to have been paid for an Old Master painting. The fanfare was played for all it was worth, and Huntington happily fanned the publicity’s flames.


There’s no business like show business, a fact now underscored by a captivating Gainsborough exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art. Organized with the Cincinnati Art Museum around the Ohio collection’s marvelous full-length portrait of musician Ann Ford, ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman’ puts the focus on his paintings of the distaff side. ‘Blue Boy’ is more famous, but Gainsborough’s women might finally be more fully revealing of his ultimate achievement.

The show is small -- just 11 paintings, plus a few period costumes to elaborate late-18th-century styles of dress, so important to this art. But the loans are exceptional: full-length works from the Tate, the Metropolitan, the Getty, the Huntington and more.

None is more impressive than the half-length seated portrait of Sarah Siddons from London’s National Gallery, an iconic work in Gainsborough’s career. Satin, fur, tulle, feathers, felt, cotton, velvet, lace -- if you didn’t know that the painter was the son of a successful textile merchant, this portrait might give you a clue.

Gainsborough senior benefited from England’s explosive Industrial Revolution; his son’s intimate knowledge of fabrics would later stand him in good stead as a fashionable portrait painter of people whose established social roles were shifting. The eminent actress is portrayed as a stylish matron -- a compendium of sensual tactility, all in soft contrast to her smooth, almost sculptural, nearly alabaster skin.

Forget anatomical correctness: Siddons’ impossibly long right arm, which would attach to her torso somewhere below the expected shoulder socket, is located where it is in order to establish the picture’s compositional dexterity. Its graceful hand, agent of human touch, reaches far afield in order to gently play with the downy furs spread across her lap.

Gainsborough grew to prominence by throwing off the sleek, highly finished, virtually anonymous surfaces expected of 18th-century British academic artists. Instead he offered visually tactile painterly texture, adapted from the continental styling in an earlier century of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Like handwriting, his sensuous brushwork calls attention to itself, from the feathery cascade of curls at the actress’ neck to the creamy horizontal blue stripes of her lavish dress, highlighted with sumptuous flashes of white.


Witness Gainsborough’s genius: Siddons’ hand mirrors the hand of the artist. Sleek academic style, which repressed the artist’s individual touch and put painting at the service of classical rules, conveys an image of timeless authority. That made sense for Britain’s stable aristocracy; but, in the tumultuous age of Industrial Revolution, society was changing. Gainsborough’s brushwork, enacted with dexterity and skill, performed. It meant to delight a rapt audience -- not unlike Siddons on stage.

This is painting as performance art. And what better subject for that than a famous actress, who knew a bit about performing?

In fact, most of the show’s sitters are performers. Ann Ford played the English guitar and the viola de gamba. Giovanna Baccelli was a ballerina. Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, played on the political stage, campaigning as a suffragette. Gainsborough’s own daughters -- Mary, 14, and Margaret, 11 -- were being trained as artists; their proud papa shows them with drawing tools in hand.

Theater is the great tradition in British art. It encompasses Gainsborough’s paintings, in subject and dramatic style, as surely as it does Hogarth’s and Hockney’s.

Remarkably, Gainsborough also expresses solidarity with these women -- virtually all of whom led lives of tabloid-worthy scandal. Just being an actress, like Siddons, was to put oneself in league with prostitutes. Ford’s father twice had her arrested for publicly playing the viola, held between the musician’s legs. Lady Spencer lived happily in a ménage à trois with the Duke and her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster.

As the show’s excellent catalog attests, they were so-called ‘demireps.’ These were women with ‘half-reputations,’ neither fully accepted nor rejected in society, yet navigating a changing world through skill and wit. Their efforts furthered social transformation.

Gainsborough understood them, because he was like them. An outlandishly gifted fellow from the rural provinces, who moved to London at 45, he battled stale Royal Academy conventions at every turn.


This social struggle is likewise evident in ‘Blue Boy.’ (The Huntington’s marvelously lush full-length portrait of gutsy, cultured Viscountess Ligonier is in the San Diego show.) Gainsborough presents the son of a wealthy merchant -- literally, a child of the Industrial Revolution’s social shakeup -- dressed in a theatrical costume.

Young Jonathan wears aristocratic guise adapted from a Van Dyck double-portrait of the foster sons of King Charles II. He is asserting his own social position, which does not include a legacy of landed gentry. ‘Blue Boy’ is performing, as surely as Siddons, Ford, Spencer -- and Gainsborough too.

Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, (619) 232-7931, through May 1. Closed Monday.

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