Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Cavendish

Sir Thomas Gainsborough,

Lady Georgiana Cavendish, 1783, National portrait gallery

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After he moved to Bath and devoted his time to painting portraits, Gainsborough became famous as the painter of the aristocracy. In this work, belonging to the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, he portrayed Lady Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The latter was also portrayed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough’ rival. The three-quarter length portrait is a three-quarter view of the Duchess. Gainsborough opted for a limited range of colours so as to pay a tribute to the lady’s elegance. The hues are mostly cold colours, ranging from powder blue to pale green. The prevailing colours are black and white, which adds to the elegance of this aristocratic portrait. The lady is dressed in a light white gown; her thin waist is enhanced by a blue ribbon tied in her back. Her large-brimmed black hat is decorated with black feathers and a white satin ribbon that matches her dress. Contrasting with the cold hues of the dress and the background, the pink rose the sitter is holding is the only token of bright colour. It matches the bright red lips of the lady. One may notice Gainsborough’s talent at painting fabrics. Thin layers of white paint are used for the muslin covering the lady’s chest, a whole set of half-tones is used to give volume to the folds of the dress, and the ribbon tied to the hat offers stark contrasts in light. Gainsborough’s handling of the costume accounts for the liveliness of this portrait. The complexion of the duchess’ face stands out against the dark background and the large black hat. Gainsborough would very often set his characters in a dark natural scenery. This proceeding also enabled him to pay attention to atmospheric effects and to match the sitter’s mood and the background. This portrait thereby testifies to the painter’s taste for painting the landscape. The harmony between the figure and the surrounding landscape stems from Gainsborough’s fastidious choice of colour and from his brushwork. As a matter of fact the lady’s hair and the foliage of the tree on the right hand side are painted with the same brisk circular brushstrokes. This aspect of the portrait may remind us of other portraits by Gainsborough such as The Morning Walk or Lady Sheffield, in which the same vivid brushstrokes are applied. Besides, as is often the case in Gainsborough’s portraits, the brown washes applied over some parts of the lady’s dress give the impression that the lady merges with nature. Being commissioned a portrait of the Duchess, Gainsborough had to highlight the aristocratic elegance of the sitter but he strove to deliver a fine sentiment and to give the viewer an insight into the lady’s personality. The duchess is gazing at the viewer and smiling in a much charming way. While in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait she is obviously posing for the painter, here she seems to share something with the artist and her face is much more lively. Though Gainsborough would paint types and not individuals, he was eager to give his sitters a distinct temperament. Gainsborough therefore gave portraiture a new impetus thanks to his impressionistic brushworks and to his psychological insight.

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