Fashion in Reynolds and Gainsborough: Part 9

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This is the last part! I hope you all have enjoyed your detailed foray into the works of two amazing painters. I've included my bibliography if you would like to do further reading on the topic.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

How they were represented, whether as classical goddesses or modern fashionistas, was extremely important to the sitters for both Reynolds and Gainsborough. When both these painters were active the cult of celebrity was at its height. According to Mark Hallett, “Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes.” By the mid eighteenth century, a new freedom of the press and extremely lax libel laws allowed for the rumor mills to run wild, and writers and cartoonists to portray the celebrities of the day in any manner they chose. The public was fascinated with the scandals and glamour of the lives of celebrities. For women, celebrity came either from the top or the bottom of the social chain- aristocrats and actresses and courtesans. The common denominator in these women was their wealth. To have their portrait painted was an opportunity not only to be remembered but to represent themselves to the eager public who followed their every move. Thus how they were represented was extremely important.

Those who sat for Reynolds, portrayed in classical drapery, aligned themselves with the lofty ideals of ancient civilizations. They expressed intelligence, timelessness, an association with the greatest artists, architects, and philosophers the world has ever known. Contemporary society held up Ancient Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of western civilization, a height of perfection that has yet to be reached again. By wearing the clothing of these worlds, Reynolds’ sitters became associated with the perfection of these ancient societies and subsequently hoped the public would make the same connections. There is also a sort of power associated with ancient women, for example the powerful goddesses or rulers such as Cleopatra and Olympias, mother to Alexander the Great. In aligning themselves with a culture which worshipped female deities and allowed powerful female rulers, Reynolds’ sitters were asserting their own power, something strongly lacking in the life of the eighteenth century woman.

Gainsborough’s sitters, on the other hand, were mostly portrayed in the eighteenth century equivalent of couture. In wearing the latest fashions, these women were giving a different representation of themselves to the public. Rather than being associated with the intelligence and gravity of ancient civilizations, these women associated themselves with the height of eighteenth century society. Those who were the most in style and set the trends were also the wealthiest, and they wished to show off both their wealth and fashion know-how. By showing off their good fashion sense Gainsborough’s sitters aligned themselves with the world of wit and pleasure. If they were fashionable enough to set trends, and wealthy enough to afford the latest styles, then these women were also witty conversationalists, excelled at artistic endeavors such as music or dancing, and had a healthy interest in politics and the latest literature. Thus by showing off their best style, Gainsborough’s sitters showed off their accomplishments in society on the whole. This in turn also gave Gainsborough’s sitters a kind of power, one that was slightly more tangible than that gained by Reynolds’ sitters. While Reynolds’ sitters merely associated with the great women of antiquity, Gainsborough’s sitters were the great women of contemporary society. Although women were still second class citizens, by dominating society these women were able to gain some form of personal autonomy.

1. Ribeiro, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995. Print.

2. Rosenthal, Michael. The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: 'A little business for the Eye'. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. Print.

3. Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity. Ed. Martin Postle. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. Print.

4. "Queen Charlotte." The Royal Collection. The Royal Collection, n.d. Web. 4 Dec 2010. .

5. Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail: 1730-1930. 1st ed. Hollywood, CA: Costume & Fashion Press, 1958. Print.

6. Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. The Worldwide History of Dress. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2007. Print.

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