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The women Gainsborough most loved to paint were in fact very familiar in their time, and his flirtatious, loose brushwork expressed a provocative, casual intimacy with his subjects. He anticipated what Baudelaire would in the 1860s declare essential to modern painting — that contemporary life and fashion determine how subjects were rendered. The women in this exhibition aren’t posed or dressed to conform to abstractions of the feminine. Each is what we now take for granted in portraiture: the artist confronts the reality of the model and responds with his own interpretive style. Gainsborough practiced what Baudelaire would preach — that a portrait is a model complicated by the artist.

Don’t believe everything you read. The label next to Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire describes it as “restrained and conventional,” but it was the one that most swept me up in its sensuality. Lady Cavendish was a real pip, as renowned for her unorthodox political opinions as for her enviably capacious alcohol and drug intake, her gambling (and resulting horrendous debts), her fling with the Second Earl Grey that produced a daughter, and her inviting Lady Elizabeth Foster (her best friend) to join in a ménage a trois with her and the lucky Duke. To my eye, Gainsborough answered the person with his sexiest picture, and he did it all with fabrics. The frilly bodice and skirt that shiver down Georgiana’s body are closer to negligee than to social attire, and the diaphanous fabric is so tightly drawn that it clings to thigh and midriff. Even the yellowish gold tints evoke the flesh that lies beneath. This is clearly a who-cares-what-people-think intelligence dressed in its own nonchalant sensuality. And Gainsborough’s daredevil technique was ready and willing to collude with both. ■

Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman is on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art until May 1. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-232-7931; sdmart.org.

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monaghan April 13, 2011 @ 8:53 p.m.

Ms. Cavendish -- what a babe, what a hat!

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