Reviewed: ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman’

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions, Member News, reviews by Editor on June 24, 2011

Benedict Leca, Aileen Ribeiro, and Amber Ludwig, Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, ed. Benedict Leca (London: Giles Limited, 2010) 196 pages, ISBN: 9781904832850, $49.95.

 Reviewed for Enfilade by Susan M. Wager

After a visit to Thomas Gainsborough’s studio in October 1760, the socially and culturally accomplished Mary Delany wrote, “There I saw Miss Ford’s picture—a whole length with her guitar, a most extraordinary figure, handsome and bold; but I should be sorry to have any one I loved set forth in such a manner.” The picture in question, Gainsborough’s Ann Ford of 1760, and the ambivalent reactions (like Mrs. Delany’s) it has engendered, is the central focus of Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman. This lavishly illustrated catalogue, published to accompany an exhibition of the same name that originated at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2010 before traveling to the San Diego Museum of Art earlier this year, was edited by Benedict Leca, Curator of European Painting, Sculpture, and Drawings at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The portrait of Ann Ford—an eighteenth-century woman who garnered an ambiguous reputation by daring to organize public performances of her talent at the viola da gamba (unusual for a woman at the time)—was acquired by the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1927 and remains a highlight of the Museum’s collection. Leca has cleverly constructed an exhibition around the portrait, enriching our understanding of it through the juxtaposition of several well-selected loans. These include some of Gainsborough’s portraits of other “demireps”—women whose “social and sexual assertiveness combined with their flair for personal style and public exposure ran counter to propriety,” as defined by Leca. The catalogue’s three essays—by Leca, Aileen Ribeiro, and Amber Ludwig—all seem to be underpinned, implicitly, by the question: to what extent were these “demireps” in control of the constructed identities mediated through their painted portraits?

Leca’s approach to this question is decidedly optimistic. Drawing on compelling evidence such as Ann Ford’s published writings on the merits of the female sex, Leca argues that Gainsborough and Ford, in addition to some of his other female sitters, were equal partners in the production of images that challenged circumscribed gender codes and asserted female liberation from masculine control. Leca reads the correlation of Gainsborough’s signature loose brushwork—deemed “feminine” by his contemporaries—with painted passages of conventionally feminine accessories adorning sexually assertive women as the artist’s ironic and progressive rejection of masculinist norms. As Leca writes, Gainsborough’s portraits present “provocative women provocatively painted.”

Ribeiro’s essay considers how the costumes worn by Gainsborough’s demireps participated in the negotiation of reputation, class, and status. Ribeiro subtly complicates Leca’s reading of Ann Ford by evoking scholars who have suggested that paintings of accomplished women like Ford could be seen as relatively traditional presentations of ideal and precious objects of beauty, served up for the viewer’s delectation. Although Ribeiro ultimately disagrees with these readings, her essay nonetheless gestures toward the plurality of interpretations that can be gleaned from images of demireps.

Joshua Reynolds, "Portrait of Nelly O'Brien," ca. 1762-64 (London: Wallace Collection)

Leca and Ribeiro mobilize two different portraits by Joshua Reynolds of the courtesan Nelly O’Brien to make divergent points about Ann Ford. Leca emphasizes the “subversive femininity” and “suggestiveness” of Ford’s pose by contrasting it to Reynolds’s 1762-4 portrait of O’Brien (The Wallace Collection). Whereas Reynolds dissembles the unsavory profession of O’Brien through the imposition of a pyramidal, closed, Marian pose onto her body, Gainsborough flaunts the immodesty and impropriety of Ford’s dynamic, crossed-leg attitude. Ribeiro, however, juxtaposes Ann Ford with a 1763-7 Reynolds portrait of O’Brien (The Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow) in order to underscore the formality of Ford’s dress in contrast to O’Brien’s “loose bed-gown.” The latter is far more scandalous than Ford’s costume, which would have been chosen precisely to shore up Ford’s ambiguous reputation. Conflicting readings like these do not detract from the overall thrust of the book; instead, they strengthen it, attesting to the complexity of the images under examination.

Joshua Reynolds, "Portrait of Nelly O'Brien," ca. 1763-67 (Glasgow: Hunterian Museum)

Indeed, complexity characterizes the images addressed by Amber Ludwig in her essay on how portraiture could attach the appearance of virtue to women with dubious reputations. Addressing pictures of Emma Hamilton, she underscores, for instance, tensions between the desires and personality of the sitter and the desires for propriety imposed by her husband or lover.

Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman would be a welcome addition to the libraries of scholars and general readers alike. The catalogue’s clear prose is supplemented by sumptuous, full-color plates and extraordinarily high-resolution details, offering a worthy substitute for individuals who did not see the exhibition, or a handsome aide-mémoire for those who did.

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Susan M. Wager is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History & Archaeology at Columbia University. Her research examines eighteenth-century reproductions after François Boucher in the mediums of gems, porcelain, and tapestries at the intersection of consumer culture, natural history, antiquarianism and connoisseurship, and global exchange.

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