The National Portrait Gallery in London is one of my favorite museums, showing great art in a rigorous historical context. I was immersed in history from childhood, so in many ways I feel I know the kings and queens, politicians, inventors, soldiers, adventurers, and artists on the walls. My views on many of them have changed over the years, so the place always seems alive to me.
In America, history — at least as taught in schools — is sometimes so twisted and degraded that putting “no,” “never,” or “not” in front of every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb in a school-age history book would get the reader closer to reality. But the NPG tends to get it right. It aims at quality, challenging content without losing its way in preening or self-involved fantasy.
“Gainsborough’s Family Album,” the NPG’s new show, is a perfect gem. Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1797) was one of the best portraitists of his era, so the art is divine. It’s focused, showing only portraits of his extended family. It doesn’t ramble or babble, and there are no squishy or irrelevant points. The show becomes a neat, poignant biography of the artist. He loved his wife, his daughters, and many other relations, and while a complex, unique family dynamic existed, he never dipped his brush in poison. It’s a lovely show to see around Christmas.
Since he painted his family, he was sometimes experimental, so I learned plenty about his ambitions and talents. When he painted vain, rich, spoiled patrons, he felt locked into the conventions of his time. And the show is fresh. No one has looked at the subject. There were many things I’d never seen. It’s a private world, like any family album. He knew the sitters intimately. The truth he perceived and what they saw in themselves are gracefully aligned.
The best-known painting in the show is Mary and Margaret Gainsborough Chasing a Butterfly from about 1756, the earliest of six double portraits of his two daughters when they were five and six. A starting point for these pictures is their rarity. The concept of likenesses of people who were not rich, famous, or attached to someone rich or famous was virtually unknown in Gainsborough’s time. This genre, which became an obsession, dates from the era of photography, still a bit less than a century away. Rembrandt painted a handful of portraits of his son, and so did a few other artists, but Gainsborough did about 50 family portraits.
Gainsborough’s own family was middle-class, though, in the spirit of full disclosure, he married the illegitimate daughter of the third Duke of Bedford. It didn’t give Gainsborough connections, but it gave him some financial security, since his wife got an annuity. Gainsborough himself was the fifth son of a weaver. Mrs. Gainsborough was his business manager. He had to work for a living. Even in the 1750s, when he did the butterfly picture, he was a busy artist. This and almost all of his family portraits were freebies.
It’s one of many stars in the show, and its big scale makes it more impressive. It’s frank and casual, freely painted, not completely finished, and very much a snapshot. However, I think the curators try to find a moral dimension in it that doesn’t exist, suggesting that the picture might have “symbolized the dangers inherent in a child’s pursuit of its own thoughtless impulses, whilst also invoking the more general idea of the transience of human life and its pleasures.” For cryin’ out loud, these kids are chasing a butterfly. They’re not playing Russian roulette. They’re having fun. Leave it at that, without the moralizing, which I doubt motivated Gainsborough.
We see these two children grow into teenagers and, in Mary and Margaret Gainsborough from 1774, fashionable, even grand young women. It’s from a private collection and is the only one of the double portraits that Gainsborough finished. Gainsborough had just moved to London. He’d inaugurated a career as a high-society portraitist living in the West End, soon to work for the royals. They look like two debutants, and in many ways they were. Gainsborough, always ambitious as the devil, had arrived.
There are many beautiful portraits in the show. None is trivial. The curators develop a storyline that is aesthetically and intellectually incisive. A 1748 portrait of him, his wife, and their first child, a daughter who died when she was two, establishes their aspirations. Gainsborough gives them an elegant, bucolic setting much as his affluent patrons would have had. He’s only 20, but he saw himself as a fancy family man, dapper, suitably confident, holding a letter so he’s a man of the world, with a smartly dressed wife.
The show takes a perceptive look at his marriage, like every marriage a fraught endeavor. This one ran the distance. The Artist’s Wife from about 1777 shows a strikingly beautiful, intelligent woman of 50. It’s unusually direct in Gainsborough’s probing look at her, which she returns, unembarrassed and inquisitive. This contrasts with Gainsborough’s women in his commissioned portraits, who often look haughty, flirty, or insipid. In 1773, he painted a portrait of Gainsborough Dupont, a nephew who became an artist, and Edward Gardiner, another nephew. They are revisits of The Blue Boy, which he’d painted around 1770. Both boys wear what was probably the same prop he used as the subject of his signature picture. Already a founding member of the Royal Academy, the social-climbing, forever facile Gainsborough relished the idea he could take two boys, one the son of a carpenter and the other the son of a milliner, and give them the looks of a Stuart aristocrat.
Gainsborough painted many self-portraits. They measure his gradual transformation from a striving, up-and-coming provincial in the group portrait from 1748 to the man who, as his friend Philip Thicknesse said, “knows, as well how to act, and think, like a gentleman, as he does to contemn and despise those who dare to treat him in any other light.” His Self-Portrait from 1787 comes close to a glare, as if Gainsborough had sized the viewer up and found him wanting.
Gainsborough was intensely competitive. He set high standards, too. Most of all, he worshipped and emulated Van Dyke. Among his peers, he wanted nothing more than to best Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) but realized on his deathbed this was an impossible dream. Gainsborough asked Reynolds to visit him days before he died. Gathered around him during Reynolds’s and his last time together were some of Gainsborough’s unfinished pictures. He said he regretted dying “as he now began to see what his deficiencies were.” He talked about Van Dyke and seemed to feel he failed to climb to his level. Now, Reynolds was the reporter, and he was competitive, too. He got the last word. Whether it was true or not is left to the visitor. One of the great beauties of the show is that it leaves us with questions such as these but also puts us in a position of informed, sympathetic appraiser.
The show is sensitively installed and paced. The curators selected four shades of blue for the walls, a lovely color for English rococo painting. The catalogue has three solid essays by David Sofkin, Ann Bermingham, and Susan Sloman. Each is a distinguished scholar of Gainsborough studies. Gainsborough lamented how difficult it was to compete with Reynolds. “He’s so various,” he complained.
“So various” is how I would describe the NPG. It did a very good show of portraits of Michael Jackson, which I liked and reviewed. My sole quibble surrounded the curator’s zeal in making Jackson a philosopher, which he wasn’t. In a lot of ways, Jackson was pretty dumb and certainly too self-involved to see much beyond himself. Still, the NPG did a great show. Every time I visit, I leave feeling enriched. Isn’t that what we want from an art museum?