I recently had the good fortune to visit the Cincinnati Art Museum, where there is an important and stunning exhibition of six major full-length portraits and one seated portrait (the famous one of Mrs. Siddons) all by the 18th century English painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). The premise of the exhibition “Thomas Gainsborough & the Modern Woman,” which is based on Cincinnati’s own Portrait of Ann Ford, later Mrs. Thicknesse, is to bring attention to the fact that Gainsborough painted portraits of women other than aristocrats. The subjects of these particular portraits were actresses, dancers, musicians and even courtesans. Therefore, in an age and society bound by strict rules of decorum and an age in which women were generally expected to stay at home and raise the children, these works show Gainsborough’s willingness, delight even, in painting interesting, intelligent, “modern” women whose lives resonate with our own times.
The exhibition is the creation of Cincinnati’s curator of European art, Benedict Leca, who gave me a fascinating tour of his project. There are loans from the Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Huntington Collection, the Tate and National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and from Cincinnati’s collection. Almost all the portraits have recently been cleaned and I have to say they are knock-outs. There is also a smaller component of the exhibition of a number of bust-length portraits of women by Gainsborough, which serves as a “coda” along with several 18th century dresses from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection. Nice additions.
If you love beautiful, juicy painting (and this is Gainsborough at his best), portraits of intelligent, creative women in fabulous dresses, as well as seeing the 18th century in a fresh way, then you won’t want to miss this show. It is on through January 2 when it goes to San Diego Museum of Art, where it will be shown from January 29 through May 1, 2011. And there is a handsome catalogue with marvelous illustrations that accompanies the exhibition.
Art Speaks. Join the Conversation
CMA Curator of European Art