Thomas Gainsborough

The Housemaid

c.1782–6

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 2349 x 1486 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle 1913
Reference
N02928

Display caption

The large format of this unfinished painting would normally be used for grand portraits of the rich or famous, instead of the working-class woman shown here. In fact, there is a tradition that the woman is the wealthy Hon Mrs Graham in fancy dress.  

Whether it is a fancy-dress portrait or a depiction of a working woman, the painting raises some intriguing questions. Does it simply pander to fantasies of dignified poverty or encourage true sympathy for ordinary people? Is this a kind of voyeuristic ‘pin-up’, or a powerful image of a real social type?

Gallery label, September 2004

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