Portrait of Margaret Gainsborough, c.1779
Oil on canvas
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Courtauld Gift, 1932
Portrait of Margaret Gainsborough, c.1779, The Courtauld Gallery, London
This portrait was one of the first paintings to be acquired by Samuel Courtauld, who bought it in 1921, along with a work he believed to be a self-portrait by Thomas Gainsborough painted as a pendant to this portrait of his wife; the portrait of the artist is now thought to be either a copy, or at least to have been completed by his nephew and studio assistant, Gainsborough Dupont.
Margaret Burr (born in 1728) married Gainsborough when she was only eighteen and he a year older, and it has been suggested that this portrait was painted to mark her fiftieth birthday. Since their marriage, Gainsborough had become one of England's leading portraitists, and in the tradition of his wife's family, the artist would paint a new portrait of Margaret on their wedding anniversary each year.
This portrait is striking for its suggestion of intimacy between painter and sitter; Mrs Gainsborough is shown with her body and face pointing straight towards the viewer, her eyes meeting our gaze directly, her lips slightly curved into what may be a smile, but which also suggests resignation. Equally striking is the mantle edged with black lace which she has draped over her head and shoulders; this is formed from a powerful swirl of energetic brush-strokes around her head, which, continued by the position of her hands, suggests a subtle, personalised version of the painted architectural ovals within which, many more formal eighteenth century portraits were framed.
Towards the latter part of his career, Gainsborough's handling of paint became increasingly rhythmic and flowing. Working with thinned paints he experimented with ever-bolder effects of transparency and light. In fact, it may be possible to see in the strong back-lighting that illuminates the sitter's left side – throwing the delicately patterned black lace into silhouette – a reflection of Gainsborough's experiments with the newly fashionable art of painting transparent images on glass. Such images, when lit from behind by flickering candlelight, could produce a startling effect of glowing and moving light.
During the mid-1770s Gainsborough painted a number of landscape images on glass to be viewed through a magnifying lens in a specially constructed 'peep-show' box (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and it is possible that his interest in such lighting effects spilled over into his portraiture.
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