As a warm-up before you see the splashy Gainsborough exhibition running at the San Diego Museum of Art, make a pass at Fragonard’s late 1770s Blindman’s Buff in the Timken. In a vaguely bucolic setting, young men and women play at faint-away yearning and flirtation: one couple peers into the distance while girls tie a blindfold around an eager boy. Let the games of love begin! It’s a picture about romantic daring, and Fragonard’s breezy, swift manner is the perfect vehicle for such serious frivolity.
No one would describe Gainsborough as frivolous, but the thesis of the exhibition, Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, is that he and some of his portrait subjects conspired in different sorts of daring and that the pictures are evidence of complicity. Gainsborough was fond of French Rococo, though he owed a lot more to Watteau’s shadowy melancholy and rich textures. The handling in Blindman’s Buff swoons. Watteau was tighter, more theatrically composed, and these were values Gainsborough honored in his own practice, though he also found ways of translating Fragonard’s erotic playfulness into a more aristocratic idiom.
Born in 1727, Gainsborough started out as an assistant to a London engraver. In 1752, he moved to Ipswich, painted “landscips,” and established a portraiture business. After that, it was all uphill, or up the stairs. He moved to Bath in 1760, cultivated high-society clients, and developed the freer style that would race through his later portraits of women. In short order he became “official,” which is to say a member of the Royal Academy, but one with a reputation for being what a newspaper described as “a favourite among the Demireps,” namely respectable ladies with suspect reputations. Soon after he moved to London in 1774, he became the Royal Family’s favorite painter and from then on handily negotiated his way between conformity to academic conventions and his own need to exploit and explore open, florid, loosely drawn effects.
Of the 11 large paintings in Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, the earliest dates to 1760, the latest to 1786. What unifies them all is the fact that each woman was in some way known, or notorious, for being independent, artistic, assertive, sassy. These aren’t women defined or confined by marital affiliations or social station. They were celebrities in their own right, actresses, courtesans, and musical performers well known to polite Georgian society who relished pushing the boundaries of prescribed feminine behavior. If you got it, flaunt it. And they were met full on by the most distinguished portraitist of the time who himself refused to settle into a safe, predictable manner.
Gainsborough’s freshening, restless style gives his half-body portrait of Mrs. Maria Anne Fitzherbert a whippy expressiveness. He plays off the slashing, zigzag action of his brush in Fitzherbert’s dress and hair against her becalmed, reflective demeanor. Her self-composure is a delectable taunt to both Gainsborough and us. Her classic pensive head-resting-on-hand pose makes her look as if she knows things we (and the artist) don’t and that she’s not about to give away her game. It’s a portrait of self-possessed intelligence and libidinous excitement, but the libido business is the result of Gainsborough’s fleet handing. In the wristy, hastening flurries of color, you can practically feel him trying, so to speak, to get control of himself. Even in a tamer picture like his double portrait of his own daughters, their teenage tenderness and dreaminess are toughened by an ambition their father finds, or wishes for, in their femininity. They’re soon-to-be heartbreakers, sure, but they’re also themselves young artists in training, as evidenced by their drawing materials. It was quite acceptable for proper young women to do their dilettante thing in the arts, but the game changes when it’s the father using the resources of his own practice to endorse and push his daughters’ (potentially competitive) aspirations.
Fashionistas with little interest in art history or the exhibition’s scholarly argument — that “a special complicity between artist and sitter formed the basis from which both conspired to upend traditional portraiture and calcified gender roles” — will find their own show-inside-a-show here. The wardrobe these women sported ranges from the ballerina Giovanna Baccelli’s flailed feathery train to the flashing platinum folds of Ann Ford’s gown. The curators include a few actual costumes to document the fashions of the times, all the silk taffetas and brocades and undersleeves that in the pictures give material form to spiritual, sexual, and intellectual restiveness. If nothing else, you will leave this exhibition knowing how stiff buckram bodices and that petticoats’ whalebone stays literally contained and constructed a woman’s body. You will also learn — who could live without such knowledge? — what a “stomacher” is.
The emotional and aesthetic dynamics set in motion when Gainsborough’s technical mastery mixes with his experiments are beautifully expressed in Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier. In mild mockery of classical precedent, the artist poses her against a pedestal topped with a classic female nude, arm raised to better lift, classically, her naked breasts. But the statue’s base floats on puttied ribbons of color. The artist’s inquiring hand is literally undermining classical composure. And this particular Penelope suggests none of the cunning patience and devotion of Odysseus’s Penelope. She’s intellectually intense, her pose is hipshot, and her forward foot, peeking from beneath her silks, has more than a hint of sexual energy.
Gainsborough’s renderings of the female personality rattled contemporary portraiture conventions at a time when women often appeared in the context of family life, as dependable helpmeet, or — in the case of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Miss Nelly O’Brien — a creature not so much self-possessed as demurely remote. Nelly faces front with her legs crossed, her knee creating a kind of pictorial fencing between us and her. The lapdog she’s cuddling is a security blanket. Sir Joshua, painting’s lawgiver of the period, declared that a portrait painter should honor a general idea of the feminine and not indulge in idiosyncrasy: the painter “leaves out all the minute breaks and peculiarities in the face, and changes the dress from contemporary fashion to one more permanent, which has annexed to it no ideas of meanness from its being familiar to us.”