As Kenneth Clark reminds us, all artists have a central theme around which their work revolves. For van Gogh, it was the sun, for Turner, the waves, and for Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), the human face. Although he also painted landscapes, he was drawn to portraiture, the genre regarded in his day as the highest and noblest, and the one that offered his sitters the only immortality most of them were likely to attain.
But the restless, brilliant Gainsborough set himself a loftier goal than that of achieving an accurate likeness. Of course the portrait must somehow please its subject or it would not be paid for—that went without saying. Yet male sitters seemed better prepared to accept the realities of life than female sitters. His French contemporary Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, for instance, was making masterly studies of men, but her women too often conform to the clichés of her age and look, to our eyes, vacuous and simpering.
Gainsborough’s women, on the other hand, are distinctive individuals, with the features nature gave them and characteristic expressions that reveal the inner self. Take, for example, his portrait of Elizabeth Linley in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The subject was one of the most admirable women in England—and one of the handsomest. We believe in those straight eyebrows, that delicate nose, those dreamy eyes, and the graceful pose, which makes one think of a dancer at rest by Degas. No frivolous hothouse flower, she embodies a new kind of woman: one who possesses a sensibility attuned to nature. Foliage arches over her head and brushes against her dress; and her hair lifts slightly in the breeze. Her form seems to dissolve into color and air. The mood is autumnal; even the famous Gainsborough blue of her sash is muted. She is a real person, but we can imagine her as the embodiment of the artist’s poetic vision.
Elizabeth Linley was in fact a figure of some importance in 18th-century Britain. We know quite a lot about her because she was a member of a famous musical family, the Linleys of Bath. Her father, Thomas Linley, was director of concerts at Bath, and his son and namesake, Thomas, was a child prodigy as a violinist who performed for Mozart and became his friend. Gainsborough, who loved music as much as he did art, was close to the Linleys during his period in Bath.
The countryside he liked to paint, as in this picture, is half real and half imagined. Many similar vistas are to be found on the hills surrounding Bath. An 18th-century building boom had transformed the town into a vision modeled on the idea of arcadia: elegance surrounded by a pastoral landscape, man in harmony with nature. Terraces sprang up on the hillsides, crescents overlooked commanding views, and circles and squares decorated the lower town. It had been built as a playground for royalty and the rich, with music, theater, and balls. Crowds came to take the waters, drink, dance, and gamble. It was a metropolis of fashion and folly.
Elizabeth, born in 1754, began to sing in her father’s concerts and oratorios when she was still very young. By the time she was an adolescent, she was attracting crowds with the beauty of her voice and the perfection of her form. “Miss Linley’s beauty,” Horace Walpole declared, “is in the superlative degree.” She was modest, graceful, accomplished, and irresistible. After a performance in London, the novelist Fanny Burney wrote that the whole town “seems distracted about her. Every other diversion is forsaken. Miss Linley alone engrosses all eyes, ears, hearts.”
By then, Gainsborough was at the peak of his fame. Like the 19th-century portraitist Boldini, he was a master of illusion. He was known to attach brushes to long handles so that he could paint from a distance of several feet. Up close, the canvas appeared as a meaningless jumble of dots and scratches, blobs and streaks. But as the viewer retreated, the hieroglyphs magically transformed themselves into bravura studies of men and women at the height of their splendor and self-assurance. The painter captured them precisely as they imagined themselves.
These portraits were executed strictly for money. Yet in his best works Gainsborough’s theatrical instincts were subordinate to his love for his subject. One sees this also in an earlier portrait, in London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, of Elizabeth and her younger sister Mary, completed in 1772. It could be set in the same leafy glade we see in the National Gallery painting. Elizabeth is standing, resting on a guitar and looking out over the town. The impish Mary, who was also a famous singer, sits with a musical score on her lap. A more affecting study of charming sisters would be hard to imagine.
In 1773 Elizabeth married the brilliant Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and gave up her career because Sheridan, who was also politically ambitious, considered it beneath his dignity to have his wife singing for money. The National Gallery painting of her is dated 1785–87, after the collapse of her idyllic life. Her husband was notoriously unfaithful. Her adored brother Thomas had died in an accident, Mary died of tuberculosis in 1787, and Elizabeth herself was ill with the same disease. She died in 1792, a few years later, at the age of 38.
Gainsborough’s work is not much discussed nowadays, nor is his bravura technique appreciated as it once was. The artist’s slashing brushstrokes, one critic complained of a different portrait, so dominated the composition that it was more a picture of a dress than of a woman. As for his uncanny ability to catch a likeness, that is no longer much admired either, although it was frequently cited by his contemporaries. What does still puzzle and delight the senses is Gainsborough’s ability to paint a mood by means of some subtle alchemy of color, form, and composition.
If, as Walter Pater wrote, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” one wonders which of Elizabeth Linley’s particular arias was lingering in the artist’s mind as he painted this haunting portrait.
Meryle Secrest’s most recent book is Modigliani: A Life (Knopf).