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was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, Gainsborough's portrait of the Duke (collection Lord Sackville) was withdrawn, presumably for reasons of decorum.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.
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