Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A painting I wish I had painted

Portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

Thanks to trips to the Cincinnati Art Museum in the late 1970's and a book called The World of Thomas Gainsborough, I became a fan of that artist's work done mostly in the 1780's. I adored an enormous portrait of Mrs. Philip Thicknesse (Ann Ford) at the Cincinnati Art Museum, but if there was a particular painting I was hopelessly in love with as an artist, it was Gainsborough's portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her actual name was Elizabeth Linley and she was an old friend of the artist, a celebrated beauty and the wife of the noted comic playwright.

I had a photocopy of this painting in my studio for years. When colour photocopiers became available, I re-photocopied it and even now she gazes out into the studio. Last Saturday, I took my mother and Valerie to the Cincinnati Art Museum to see an exhibit called Gainsborough and the Modern Woman. I knew the Cincinnati painting would be there but imagine my surprise and joy to turn a corner and find the portrait of Elizabeth Linley (Mrs. Sheridan) in all of her glory. It was less seeing a painting for the first time than it was a surprise encounter with a dear old friend.

At the time we entered the gallery there was a presentation about the exhibit given by the curator and he was rather avidly expressing his joy in the pioneering of modern art he saw in this painting. I don't really see hints of Jackson Pollack in the upper left of the painting. We had to wait about for the lecture crowd to move on in order to get a good look at the portrait. The last time seeing a painting in person made me want to tear up was the first time I saw a gallery full of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Indianapolis in 1993.

Enough about all that. I very deeply wish I had painted this picture.

As you can see in the rather pale illustration above, Mrs. Sheridan is seated on a large rock at the edge of he woods. What I really enjoy about this painting is that her attire is so much more relaxed, as is her pose. Her hair is loose and flowing and the shapes of the trees seem to echo the flow of her hair. I am rather fond of painting loose flowing hair myself. She is infinitely more human and knowable.

In contrast to the sharp focus Pre-Raphaelite paintings I love so much, everything in this painting is less than distinct except for the most important part: her face. When I paint a face, this is what I aspire towards. She is nothing less than alive inside the illusion of 3 dimensional space placed on a canvas. In my opinion, if this painting were on your wall you would never be truly alone. That is how beautifully painted this portrait is. This is how much of this individual woman's spirit lives in this image. I've read that Gainsborough and Mrs. Sheridan were old friends. There is no doubt in my mind that he truly loved her. The form that love took doesn't really matter, only that he loved her. Everything about this painting is designed to guide the viewer directly to her face. None of the other details are as important as her face. What I find particularly interesting is that in the original portrait, she appears to be looking directly at the viewer. I'm sure the angle at which it is hung has something to do with it. This quality does not quite come off in reproductions from books or Google images. Still, even in the reproductions there is something there...

Close up of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Thomas Gainsborough. click on image to enlarge, then click again to see the full size image.

Maybe it's just me, but it seemed that other museum visitors seemed more drawn to her than to some of the other paintings there. Not that they were not also spectacular and wonderful in their own ways. I still love the Mrs. Phillip Thicknesse painting, but there is something indescribably magical about the Sheridan portrait. It's almost as though she could reach out, take your hand and pull you into the past with her. For me, imagery that powerful is what good art is all about. I try to do this myself over and over, and I have had only one or two paintings that remotely got in the distant neighbourhood of that goal. So I keep trying.

The Gainsborough exhibit started on Saturday the 18th of September and will run through the rest of autumn at least. If you live in any reasonable driving distance of Cincinnati, this is an exhibit worth seeing. For me, it would have been worth it for just the one painting but there is a whole gallery of delight to be found there. Oh, the rest of the museum is pretty special too. Soon, I hope to write a little something about some of my favourite pieces in the Cincinnati Art Wing  especially The Venetian Lace Makers by Robert F. Blum.  The Cincinnati Art Museum is one of my favourite art places in the region. I go there to see how it's really done. My painting instructor at Berea College, a gentleman by the name of Lester Pross was always after me to go down to the art library and look at photos of paintings reproduced in the books of the time to learn from them. Frankly, I'd much rather go look at the actual paintings. I'm sure he would too.