Thomas Gainsborough

Giovanna Baccelli

exhibited 1782

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 2267 x 1486 mm
frame: 2810 x 1830 x 155 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1975
Reference
T02000

Summary

The Italian dancer Giovanna Francesca Antonio Guiseppe Zanerini was born in Venice and took her mother's name, Baccelli, as her stage name. She was a principal ballerina in London at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, where she first appeared in 1774. She reached the peak of her acclaimed career during the 1780-1 season when she appeared with Gaetan Vestris and his son Auguste in several important ballets devised by Noverre. As one reviewer (quoted in Whitley, p.188) noted, she appears in this portrait in the costume, make-up and pose from a ballet she danced that season, Les Amans Surpris: 'the artist was not only obliged to vivify and embellish; but, if he would be thought to copy the original, to lay on his colouring thickly. In this he has succeeded, for the face of this admirable dancer is evidently paint-painted'. Baccelli also danced with great success in Venice in 1783-4, and at the Paris Opéra as late as 1788. Gainsborough was well-acquainted with many theatre people, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the famous dramatist and part-owner of the King's Theatre.

Baccelli was equally known as the last and most enduring mistress of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-99). When Baccelli's portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, Gainsborough's portrait of the Duke (collection Lord Sackville) was withdrawn, presumably for reasons of decorum. The Duke patronised Gainsborough's great rival Joshua Reynolds, who painted Baccelli in 1783 (collection Lord Sackville). The Duke, a handsome, extravagant man with a string of famous mistresses, had set up Baccelli in a suite of rooms at Knole by October 1779. Baccelli accompanied him to Paris in 1783 when he was appointed Ambassador to France. They entertained lavishly, patronising the Paris Opéra, and were admitted to the friendship of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Horace Walpole records that when the Duke was awarded the Order of the Garter in 1788, Baccelli danced at the Opéra wearing the blue Garter ribbon around her head. As the events of the French Revolution unfolded, the pair returned to Knole, where Baccelli remained until their amicable parting in 1789. She left a son behind. She subsequently developed close friendships with Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke, and Mr James Carey, with whom she remained until her death in 1801.

This lively portrait, which was at Knole until 1890, is an excellent example of Gainsborough's mature style, which is distinguished by small, quick, light brushstrokes. Most striking is the artist's successful rendering of movement. Baccelli was by accounts more charming than beautiful, and Gainsborough's portrait captures this aspect of her character perfectly. A contemporary newspaper critic said the portrait was 'as the Original, light airy and elegant' (quoted in Einberg, p.14). A receipt from Gainsborough is still preserved at Knole: 'Recd. of His Grace the Duke of Dorset one hundred guineas in full for the two 3/4 Portraits of his Grace, one full length of Madlle Baccelli, two Landskips and one sketch of Begger Boy and Girl 63105. June 15 1784/ Tho. Gainsborough'.

A small finished oil sketch for this painting is at Russborough. It has no tambourine in the lower left corner and there are other slight compositional variations. Baccelli was also painted by Ozias Humphrey (exhibited 1780, untraced), John Graham (exhibited 1784, untraced), and Gainsborough Dupont (c.1795, Royal Collection); a nude sculpture by Locatelli is at Knole.

Further reading:
William T. Whitley, Gainsborough, London 1915, pp.180, 184-5, 188, 244, 363
Elizabeth Einberg, Gainsborough's 'Giovanna Baccelli', exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1976, reproduced p.20 in colour

Terry Riggs
February 1998

Display caption

This portrait shows the famous Italian dancer Giovanna Zanerini, known on the stage as Baccelli, at the height of her career. Her elaborate costume seems to be adapted from the ballet Les Amants Surpris in which she had recently taken London by storm. Baccelli was the mistress of John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset who commissioned the painting. The rapid brushwork, translucent paint and shimmering light effects are typical of Gainsborough’s style at this time. When the portrait was first exhibited, it was chiefly praised as an excellent likeness; ‘as the Original, light airy and elegant’.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

T02000 Giovanna Baccelli exh. 1782 . Not inscribed

Oil on canvas, 89 ¼ x 58 ½ (226. 7x 148.6)

Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with a contribution from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1975

OJII: Painted for John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset; remained at Knole, Sevenoaks, until 1890, when sold privately to S. Cunliffe-Lister, later Lord Masham; purchased 1975 from the Trustees of the Swinton Settled Estates through Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd

Exh: R.A. 1782 (230); Old Masters, R.A., 1872 (56); Berlin 1908 (57); Bradford, Cartwright Hall, 1925; Ipswich, 1927 (54, repr. pl. VIII); British Art, R.A. 1934(176);A Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, R.A. 1951 (221); Gainsborough's Giovanna Baccelli, Tate Gallery, 1976 (10, repr. in col.)

Lit: G. W. Fulcher, Gainsborough, 1856, p.185; Sir W. Armstrong, Gainsborough, 1904, p.258; W. T. Whitley, Gainsborough, 1915, pp.180, 184-5,188,244; V. Sackville-West, Knole and the Sackvilles, 1922, p.189- 92; C. J. Phillips, History of the Sackville Family, 1929, II, pp.190, 192, 200-2, 343, 407, 412, 436; Commemorative Catalogue of the [R.A.] Exhibition of British Art 1934, 1935, p.56, no.201; I. Guest, 'The Italian Lady at Knole' in Ballet Annual, 1957, no.11, p.78, repr.; E. K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, 1958, pp.28, 52, cat. no.29, repr. pl.235; J. Hayes, Gainsborough Paintings and Drawings, repro pl.128 (in col.) and 132 (detail); E. Einberg, Gainsborough's Giovanna Baccelli, 1976 (repr. in col.)

Engr: J. Jones 1784 in mezzotint

Giovanna Zanerini, known on the stage as Baccelli, was for many years one of the principal ballerinas at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, where she first appeared in 1774. Her distinguished dancing career reached its peak in the brilliant season of 1780-1 when she appeared with Gaetan Vestris and his son AugUste in several important ballets devised by Noverre that took London by storm. The costume she is wearing in this picture seems to be adapted from one of these, namely that for her role in Les Amans Surpris, a ballet by Simonet first performed in London in December 1780, in which she partnered the younger Vestris in his first wildly successful appearance in England. The matching costumes of both Baccelli and Vestris were engraved by Thornthwaite after J. Roberts for Bell's British Theatre (15 May and 20 July 1781 respectively). She also danced with great success in her native Venice in 1783-4, and at the Paris Opera as late as 1788.

From about 1779 she was the mistress of George Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799) with whom she lived in lavish style both at his seat at Knole, Sevenoaks, and in Paris during his term there as ambassador from 1783 until 1789. She and the Duke parted amicably in 1789, her independence secured by an annuity of £400 which the Duke had settled on her in 1785 (Kent Record Office, Sackville papers, U269/T91/7-8). She died on 7 May 1801, after a lengthy illness, at her lodgings in Sackville Street, Piccadilly, 'generally respected for her benevolence' (Gentleman's Magazine, June 1801, p.573).

Apart from Gainsborough, she was also painted by Ozias Humphry (exh. R.A. 1780, no.335; untraced), Reynolds (exh. R.A. 1783, no.206; Sackville collection, Knole), John Graham (exh. R.A. 1784, no.372; untraced) and later Gainsborough Dupont (Royal Collection). She was also twice sculpted by John Baptist Locatelli (a bust exh. R.A. 1781, no.516, and a full-length statue now at Knole).

In this painting Gainsborough reaches one of the peaks of his mature portrait style, displaying not only his famed ability to catch a likeness, but also a brilliant fluency of brushwork and an increasing concern with compositional problems expressive of movement. When the painting was exhibited at the R.A. in 1782, it was chiefly praised as an excellent likeness, although at least one reviewer (quoted in Whitley, 1915, p.188) could not help commenting on the obvious fact that the lady is shown wearing stage-makeup: '...the artist was not only obliged to vivify and embellish; but, if he would be thought to copy the original, to lay on his colouring thickly. In this he has succeeded, for the face of this admirable dancer is evidently paint-painted'. The no less accomplished half-length of the Duke, still in the possession of the Sackville family (Waterhouse 1958, p.63, no.203, repr. pl.251) was also announced for the 1782 exhibition, but was not, in the event, shown. A receipt from Gainsborough is still preserved at Knole:

'Recd. of His Grace the Duke of Dorset one hundred Guineas in full for two ¾ Portraits of his Grace, one full length of Madelle Baccelli, two Landskips and one sketch of Begger Boy and Girl £105. June 15 1784. Tho. Gainsborough'.

A small finished oil sketch for this painting (22X 15 ½ ins.) is in the collection of Sir Alfred Beit, Bart., Russborough. It has no tambourine in the lower left corner and there are other slight compositional variations. The chief of these are the much lower trees in the background which Gainsborough raised in the finished version to engulf the outstretched arm, thus throwing the magnificent head into greater relief.

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

Audio

Giovanna Baccelli - Thomas Gainsborough

How might this dancer have moved? Ballet Historian Judy Milhous