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  • Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman
  • David A. Brewer
Exhibition organized by Benedict Leca. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, September 18, 2010–January 2, 2011; San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, January 29, 2011–May 1, 2011.
Benedict Leca, Aileen Ribeiro, and Amber Ludwig, Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman (London: Giles, 2010). Pp. 197. £34.95; $49.95.

Our usual stories of modern art, however we define such a beast, have rarely had any place for English painters. No matter when the tale in question begins—with David, with Courbet, with Manet, with Monet—its setting lies securely in France, and whatever figures it includes from beyond l'Hexagone (say, Picasso) are generally presumed to have always already had their eyes cast toward Paris or Provence. One of the real delights of Benedict Leca's splendid small exhibition, Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, is the quiet but insistent challenge it poses to this (all too often unacknowledged) Francocentrist account of modernism. At its heart, this show of thirteen portraits (eleven, with one substitution, in San Diego) explores what Leca terms in the catalog "provocative women provocatively painted" (14). But what separates the show from any number of other recent examinations of the performers, courtiers, and high-end prostitutes who tend to get lumped together as "provocative women" is precisely Leca's attention to the provocation of Gainsborough's painting itself, particularly the ways in which his quite extraordinarily expressive brushwork presents itself as akin to the sensual and potentially seductive qualities of such women. That is, according to Leca (and the portraits brought together in the show amply bear this out), Gainsborough "often deliberately located his touch"—the characteristic painterly marks which made it clear whose hand was responsible for the canvas—in those "attributes of his feminine sitters" (69) that best highlighted their allure: their make-up, their clothing, their poses, and, ultimately, the more eroticized parts of their bodies. Such a "self-consciously painterly style" (14), especially one so "visibly located" [End Page 569] in things like the rouge, ribbons, and gauzy silk apron of Giovanna Baccelli (Tate), really does offer itself up "as constitutive of an alternative, sensory kind of painting" (82), one far more akin to the kinds of facture we associate with modernism than it is to the received wisdom about eighteenth-century English portraiture.

The show pursues this argument in two principal ways. The first is simply in its selection of portraits, the social and sexual reputations of whose sitters varied in deeply revealing ways. At one end of the spectrum, we have a figure like Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott (Metropolitan Museum of Art), whose husband divorced her for adultery with the Viscount Valenia in a protracted and high profile case, whom Horace Walpole thought had "several other" "equally kind" "lords and gentlemen" attending her, and whose portrait was commissioned by yet another lover, the Earl of Cholmondeley. At the other end, we have The Artist's Daughters (Worcester Art Museum), then in their early teens, and Anne, Countess of Chesterfield (J. Paul Getty Museum), the apparently irreproachable daughter of a priest from the Hampshire gentry. And in between we have women like Ann Ford (Cincinnati Art Museum), a musician who refused an offer to become the Earl of Jersey's mistress, Baccelli (a dancer kept by the Duke of Dorset), and Mrs. Siddons (National Gallery, London), whose tragic respectability almost outweighed her profession as an actress. Clearly, any definition of "provocative women" that lumped all these sitters together on the basis of their conduct is likely to be baggy to the point of insultingly obscuring distinctions they would have regarded as crucial (e.g., it seems to have been remarkably important to Ford that she did not accept Lord Jersey's overtures). Yet, as the show demonstrates, for a portrait of a "provocative woman" to be "provocative" is not primarily a matter of whether its sitter was enveloped by the potentially tainting publicity which haunted even the most chaste of eighteenth-century female performers, aristocrats, and children of parents with dubious professions (like painting). Rather, it's a question of how visually provocative the pictures are, and in that realm the...


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