Art Review: Gainsborough’s Family Album, National Portrait Gallery ‘Small but Hugely Impressive’

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I don’t know why I thought this would be a big exhibition; I had imagined this display of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) paintings would fill many of the NPG’s ground floor galleries. After all, this is a very familiar name indeed. Yet actually this is a small and intimate show – only a few rooms – that not only is appropriate for such a personal collection of works but yet is also more than enough to demonstrate how and why Gainsborough was such an extraordinary portraitist.

I loved this show, far more than I expected to, and I came out of it with a far higher regard for the great man’s works. Many of the works we see were never really meant for such public display; Gainsborough was seen as a great landscape artist and was often commissioned for these rather than portraits. But the man loved painting portraits and was occasionally vocal about his preference for this line of work so, in a bid to keep his enjoyment going, he resorted to painting portraits of his wife, friends and, especially, his two daughters.

And the results are beautiful. Adjectives can become a bit of a nightmare as an arts reviewer as words often fail to convey images and it’s hard to find the right words here. The paintings of his daughters are particularly wonderful – the informality of their arrangement, the slight inclination of their heads, their tenderness, the delicacy of the fabric of their dresses, the density of their round cheeks… These are paintings not just filled with affection but quite radical too. In the stiff often dry world of portraiture, these are a welcome relief.

There are about fifty works brought together for this show, some of which have never been on display before. There is humanity in these paintings, a sense of the real rather than the mask. There is the palpable nervousness even anxiety in his wife’s gaze as she sits, evidently uncomfortably, for her portrait. And the cavalier almost reckless appearance of his brother, John – a bit of a jack the lad, a wheeler-dealer – evident in his brother’s depiction of him with his unkempt hair, unshaven appearance and shifty eyes.

Add to this the looseness of the brushstrokes and there’s a sense of a freer artist, and a more experimental outlook. There are paintings of extended family members, even vicars, and a return visits to his daughters that captures how they change and mature over the years.

There are no more than a few pre-modern portraitists through the years that have captured the flesh and blood so readily and so well in sitters. Raphael, Goya, John Singer Sargent, Velazquez and Rembrandt (obviously) stand out a mile (don’t come at me with your Van Dyck! – and, yes, I appreciate these are sadly all men and sadly all white) but I left this show thinking that the inclusion of Gainsborough in this list would not be that controversial. And surely that is the greatest compliment any of us can give,

National Portrait Gallery, London, to February 3, 2019.

Admission £14 (concessions available).

Image Credits:

1 The Painter;s Daughters with a Cat, probably about 1760-1. The National Gallery, London.

2 The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1756. The National Gallery, London. Henry Vaughan Bequest, 1900.

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