Virtue may command esteem, understanding and talents admiration, beauty a transient desire; but ‘tis sensibility alone which can inspire love
Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague (1769)
The late eighteenth-century concept of sensibility emphasised spontaneous emotions, compassion and a love of nature. Poems, essays and novels of the time promoted these ideals, and displays of sensibility became an important part of fashionable identity.
These values are very apparent in Gainsborough’s art. The spread of sensibility challenged more traditional and rigid ideas about how men, women and children should behave. Gainsborough’s portraits of women show them as intellectual and cultured - qualities meant to be the preserve of men. Conversely, his portraits of men show them as sensitive and in tune with nature, while his children can appear lively and independent. Gainsborough’s own sensibility is apparent in the elusive and ambiguous qualities of his paintings, which demand sensibility in his viewers, too, in order to perceive and appreciate their beauties.