Gainsborough's portraiture: Establishing the natural order

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 5:19 PM

Every day this week, art critic Blake Gopnik is discussing a work from the Mantel Room at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Day Three: Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Lord and Lady de Dunstanville

It is amazing how views of people in places can mean so many different things and generate such different art. I'm going to stay with people-in-place pictures this week at the Corcoran.

On Tuesday, I looked at a pair of pictures of a couple from the proud Dutch bourgeoisie, painted by Gerard ter Borch circa 1666. For Wednesday, I'll move forward a century, across the channel to England and up the social ladder to Lord and Lady de Dunstanville, painted by Thomas Gainsborough around 1786.

The difference could not be more striking.

Ter Borch painted modest portraits set in the domestic realm and scaled them to suit that setting: The portraits themselves depict the kind of middle-class spaces they're destined to hang in. Gainsborough heads in a very different direction: He paints big pictures meant for fancy aristocratic rooms but sets his sitters out in untamed nature.

I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that the paintings' aim is to make the very idea of an aristocracy seem part of the natural order of things. Some scholars have said that the idea of "nature," as distinct from the world of humans, is only born around this time, and had special currency in the United Kingdom. (Think of England's wild, "natural" gardens.) That may be because England was the first country to industrialize itself into so thoroughly "unnatural" a state. And along with industrialization came new chances to earn money for people who had no inborn right to an aristocrat's "natural" authority, and no contact with the natural world of land and farming that aristocracy had once been built around. A fine Gainsborough portrait could close the gap between such newcomers and the state of nature that British society imagined for itself.

Gainsborough's wonderful portraits of Francis Basset, Lord de Dunstanville, and his wife Frances Susanna give the perfect example of such newcomers, naturalized.

Despite the fancy name attached to his portrait, with its Norman Conquest ring, Basset was born a commoner, the son of a wealthy, venerable but untitled family from the far west of England. When this painting was made, he was about 30 years old and had yet to be elevated to the House of Lords. He'd risen only as high as a baronetcy, awarded to him in 1779 after he'd arranged for a crowd of Cornish tin miners to rush to the defense of Plymouth, under threat from the Spanish and French fleets. Basset went on to win distinction, and eventually the fanciful, fabricated de Dunstanville lordship, as a stalwart conservative in the House of Commons.

Even as a young man, says his obituary in the 1835 "Gentleman's Magazine," he had realized that "the human faculties are unequal to the formation of systems a priori," and so need to be governed instead by how things have always been done. (Sticking to his principles, he remained a holdout against peace with the upstarts of Britain's American colonies, who refused to be governed as every Englishman had been before.)

Gainsborough's pictures of Basset and his wife go some way toward establishing the couple's place in the tidy, natural unfolding of things. Basset looks as necessary an element of Britishness as the gently ruffled countryside he's standing in. Frances Susanna, in her flowing silks and lace, looks at one with the burbling brooks of British pastoral poetry. The feathers on her hat and in her hand might as well have fallen from some passing bird - or maybe, birdlike, she has grown them herself.

The governing cliche about Gainsborough's touch and painting style is that it is "feathery," and maybe that comes closer to being fact than metaphor. The tumble of his brushwork across people and the landscape around them ties the two together into an indissoluble, natural whole, clad in paint as a bird wears its plumage.

Gainsborough had always been a lousy figure painter; facial detail and accurate anatomy were not among his skills. He made up for his shortcomings by figuring out that, in the England of his day, he could take the vagueness painters had always used for distant grass and trees and spread it across all the subjects he painted. His portraits, rendered in earth browns and leaf greens, have none of the straight lines or crass edges of industry - of the new mines and railroads, for instance, that the Bassets promoted - but only the flutter and charm of a soft day's walk among sheep.

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