Arthur Devis

A Lady in Blue

1757

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 559 x 438 mm
frame: 730 x 593 x 98 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Alan Evans 1974
Reference
T01884

Summary

The unknown lady in Devis's portrait is seated in parkland on a circular bench constructed around the base of a tree, affording the occupant a shady retreat from the summer sun. By her side is a guitar, and in her hands the sheet music that she is to play. The instrument on the bench is an English guitar, 'a solo instrument used almost exclusively in the home and played virtually always by women' (quoted in M. Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough, New Haven and London, 1999, p.167). Any performance she might have given would have taken place in private, according to contemporary rules of etiquette. Here, she sits alone in the garden, perhaps to rehearse, as well as to study.

The woman wears a fashionable sacque dress, or robe à la française, a fashion, as the name suggests, imported from France. The woman's dress is of blue silk, the bodice trimmed with lines of ruched ribbon with cross-over silk lace trimming, the elbows decorously covered with matching silk lace ruffles. The dress and skirt (known as a petticoat) are trimmed with curving pleated ribbon, her headpiece or pompon made of blue flowers. The subject's upright pose can be partly explained by her bodice, made rigid by stays and laced tightly to flatten the bust, as demanded by the strictures of current fashion. The flowing silk train of her dress, which could cause discomfort when seated, can be seen tucked away behind and to her left. The general effect is reminiscent of the Advice to a Painter provided by the London Magazine two years earlier, in 1755:

Dress with art the graceful sack;

Ornament it well with gimping,

Flounces, furbelows and crimping;

Let of ruffles many a row,

Guard her elbows white as snow;

Knots below and knots above,

Emblems of the tyes of love.

The woman's face is decorously pale, it being then considered vulgar to expose the skin to direct sunlight, thus risking a tanned complexion. The shape of the face, like that of many of Devis's women, is a pronounced oval, an English preference that was commented on at the time by the French, whose ideal visage was more rounded, and who described the English taste as 'le visage de mouton', the face of a sheep (Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress. Fashion in England and France 1750-1820, New Haven and London 1995, p.56).

Arthur Devis, who trained under the Flemish topographical painter Peter Tillemans (c.1684-1734), specialized in neatly executed small-scale portraits, particularly groups, which are known as 'conversation pieces'. His clientele was almost exclusively drawn from the gentrified middle classes, which he often portrayed outdoors at leisure. Although his repertory of poses was limited, and his figures can appear somewhat stilted, they none the less possess an unassuming charm and delicacy.

Further reading:

Ellen D'Oench, Arthur Devis and his Contemporaries, exhibition catalogue, Yale University, 1980

Martin Postle
November 2000

Display caption

This work is typical of the small-scale single figure or 'conversation piece' groups in which Devis specialised all his life. His neat and genteel style appealed greatly to the newly enriched middle classes and country gentry, whom he painted in elegant interiors or outdoors in their parks. The identity of this particular lady is not known but she is seated, presumably in the grounds of her family estate, engaged in the refined pursuit of music-making; her guitar lies to one side, while she consults a sheet of music. This combination of landscape and portraiture influenced the young Gainsborough whose own development of the style can be seen nearby.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T01884 A Lady in Blue 1757

Inscribed' Art. Devis p.1757' b.l.

Oil on canvas 22x 17 ¼ (35.9X43.8)

Bequeathed by Alan Evans to the National Gallery and transferred to the Tate Gallery 1974

Coli: The Hon. Frederick Wallop before 1953; by descent to Alan Evans
Lit: S. H. Paviere, The Devis Family of Painters, 1950, no.95

A lady in a blue dress seated on a bench under a tree, turned to the left, holding open a music book, a guitar lying on the seat beside her. A landscape with stretches of water is behind her.

The painting appears to have been cut along all sides except the bottom one, and the awkward placing of the figure too far to the left suggests that a considerable amount must have been lost on that side, and probably from the top as well.

Although most paintings from the Evans Bequest originally came from the collection of the Hon. Frederick Wallop, Paviere's book of 1950 does not list T01884 among the Devises in the Wallop collection, but as 'whereabouts unknown.' An old photograph in the Witt Library, however, which shows this painting in a frame labelled'Zoffany', bears the stamp of the Wallop collection. One would therefore assume that it was acquired by Wallop sometime between 1950 and his death in 1953.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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