- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

"Thomas Gainsborough: 1727-1788," now at the National Gallery of Art, is the wrong exhibit at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Gallery after gallery of rich, gussied-up women and men and exaggeratedly tranquil English landscapes: with the unthinkable chemical and biological weapons attacks on civilians now the stuff of everyday conversation in the nation's capital, the exhibit seems frivolous.
Organized by Tate Britain in association with the National Gallery and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, it is the first comprehensive survey of Gainsborough's work to be shown in the United States. Sixty-three paintings and 31 drawings include favorites such as "Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan" and rarely seen works like "Mr. and Mrs. William Hallet (The Morning Walk)."
Commissioned portraits were Gainsborough's bread and butter, though he characterized his sitters as "damn'd faces" and said they often put him in "the humor for a growl." He much preferred painting landscapes when he was "all gaiety his imagination in the skies."
England had become a maritime power by the beginning of the 18th-century, especially with expansions into America and India, and the wealthy built great country houses. They needed full-length, life-sized portraits to decorate their imposing staircases, and Gainsborough (1727-1788), who enjoyed the wealth he earned from the genre, was more than happy to oblige. The increasingly powerful and prosperous middle class wanted to see and be seen. They sought escape from leisured boredom in pleasure. Yet in these portraits the boredom shows through. Indeed, it dominates the exhibition.
Consider "Mrs. Siddons," his portrait of the prominent London actress Sarah Siddons. Though acting had strong associations with prostitution, she had been careful in negotiating the disadvantages of being an actress. She favored tragic roles and maintained a dignified facade. But there is no clue to her calling in this portrait. Gainsborough portrayed her much as he did other ladies of this society, as a lady of high fashion. Holding a fox-skin muff and sitting in front of a ruby-red, swagged curtain, she stares vacuously off into space.
Or take "Mr. and Mrs. William Hallet (The Morning Walk)." The exhibit brochure describes them as a "young, recently married couple … shown strolling arm in arm, apart from their possession or identifiable real estate, merely partaking of the pleasures and beauties of nature ." They may be arm in arm, but little else links the elaborately dressed couple. There is no visual contact: She looks down, while he peers out to the left. They ignore the little dog who jumps up to be petted. The landscape is arbitrary.
Gainsborough gives no hint in his "Grace Dalrymple, Mrs. John Elliott"that she was a celebrated London courtesan. She wears a gorgeously shimmering gown of yellow-gold silk. Yet nothing in either her face or pose evokes her climb to power. She could be any well-born, aristocratic lady of the time.
This type of portraiture was not intrinsically English. Rather, it had been introduced by foreign painters invited over the years to different English courts. Holbein came during Henry VIII's reign. The highly influential Rubens and Van Dyck visited in the reigns of James I and Charles I.
The Flemish Van Dyck, whose full-length portraits look back to Titian, was the most revered of the visitors, and his approach to portraiture is easily seen in "Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan." Gainsborough here achieves a psychological insight rare for him in his revelation of his sitter's sadness.
Elizabeth Linley, who came from a family of musicians, was a talented singer. Yet after her marriage in 1773 to Sheridan, the famous playwright, she was forbidden to sing. This portrait shows Gainsborough's seamless integration of portraiture and landscape in his late works. The Rubenesque swirling trees, fields and skies seem to swallow Elizabeth and reflect the intensity of her feelings. The painter's "hatched" brushwork creates a restless energy in both figure and setting and an intensity of emotion that makes this work the highlight of the show.
There is some beautiful and intriguing art in the exhibit, especially when the aging Gainsborough ventures in new directions. With its smaller scale, bravura brushwork and unfinished look, "Edward Augustus, later Duke of Kent," painted just one year before his death hints at the new paths the artist might have followed.
"Diana and Actaeon," in which Ovid's Diana and her nymphs frolic in a pool of water, could be interpreted as a paean to voyeurism. Gainsborough's daring brushwork and use of a subject made popular by Titian make this a sensual painting in the Venetian style.
Unfortunately, the curators loaded the show with heavily-impastoed portraits that the artist evidently hated to paint. It's only in late works such as the Sheridan image that he hits his stride. And there were too few of the sketchy paintings to make a difference.
The paintings might have been fine in London, where the exhibit began. But Washington today isn't the place to flaunt these portraits of jaded, self-indulgent, aristocrats in their frippery.
Here, we're too scared to be bored.

WHAT: "Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788"
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, 4th St. and Constitution Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Open through May 11.
PHONE: 202/737-4215

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