Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) rose to become one of the most fashionable artists of eighteenth-century Britain, relying on commissioned portraits of royalty and aristocrats to make his living as a painter of both artistic and social ambition. Even as he professed to dislike portraits, and declared a preference for painting landscapes of the still-unspoiled English countryside, Gainsborough created images of his family more than any other artist before him. In turning to his family—his wife, father, sisters, even servants and pets, but most importantly his daughters as they grew—Gainsborough left a legacy that is both poignant and modern for its time.
Gathering nearly fifty such images for the first time in history, Gainsborough’s Family Album offers insights into the artist’s family life and sometimes-complicated personality but also into wider questions of domesticity, marriage, parenthood, and family values at the birth of the modern age. As it does so, it reveals a preoccupation that continues in the hands of other artists to this day, a legacy that will be explored in a companion installation.
Gainsborough’s Family Album has been organized by the National Portrait Gallery, London, in association with the Princeton University Art Museum.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether or not you go, the companion publication, Gainsborough's Family Album, features over 50 portraits of himself, his wife, his daughters, other close relatives and his beloved dogs, Tristram and Fox. Spanning more than four decades, Gainsborough's family portraits chart the period from the mid-1740s, when he plied his trade in his native Suffolk, to his most successful latter years at his luxuriously appointed studio in London's West End. Alongside this story of a provincial 18th-century artist's rise to fame and fortune runs a more private narrative, about the role of portraiture in the promotion of family values, at a time when these were assuming a recognizably modern form. In the first of three introductory essays, David H. Solkin writes on Gainsborough himself, placing his family portraits in the context of earlier practice. Ann Bermingham explores Gainsborough's portraits of his daughters, with particular reference to two finished double portraits painted seven years apart and the tragic story arising from them. Susan Sloman discusses Margaret's role as her husband's business manager, its effect on the family dynamic and hence the visual representation of its members.
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