Room 3: Portraiture and Fashion

The Mode is continually changing; its very Name implies Mutability; since nothing is more unconstant than what depends on Fashion
Gerard de Lairesse, The Art of Painting  (1738)

In Gainsborough’s time, the most lucrative form of painting was portraiture. Though he professed to hate the drudgery of ‘face-painting’, his portraits were often subtle and sophisticated. This room explores different aspects of his approach.

Some artists - notably Reynolds - sought to give a more polished look to their paintings and wanted their sitters to look timeless. By contrast, Gainsborough showed his subjects in contemporary costumes and was admired for his ability to capture a living likeness. Looking to the example of his contemporary Allan Ramsay, and the seventeenth-century artist Anthony Van Dyck, he developed a delicate and suggestive painterly style perfect for embodying fashionable ideals. Comparisons with contemporary dolls and fashion plates show Gainsborough was very aware of current fashions. But, as the caricatures here demonstrate, there were dangers associated with being so fashionable.