In the early 1860s, Edgar Degas made a copy of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray. The original, now in Kenwood House, is thought to have been completed between 1824 and 1826 and shows the four-year-old goddaughter of the Duke of Wellington prancing before her audience like a 19th-century Shirley Temple. There are ribbons and rosy cheeks and ringlets and more than a touch of Henry James. In a letter to her father, Lawrence wrote of his wish to ‘snatch’ a fleeting moment of beauty before the inevitable ‘change’ took place. The whole effect is, at least to modern tastes, quite revolting.
Degas’s Miss Murray is different. He ignores Lawrence’s saccharine touches and the fussy details of the costume. The ground of the canvas is left visible. There is only a whisper of foliage, just enough to give us the information we need. It seems like the ghost of a painting, dispensing with the meretricious qualities of the polished, finished surface. Here, Degas is the inheritor not of Lawrence but of Corot.
It’s surprising that Degas should have been drawn to Lawrence’s painting in the first place. He was usually opposed to anything sentimental and intolerant of other artists – he once announced that the gendarmes should shoot all landscape painters. Perhaps he saw in Miss Murray something of the young dancer, her skip a precursor to ballet steps. Or perhaps it was the theme of childhood; both Degas and Manet were making transcriptions of Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita at the time. Or it may be symptomatic of the French interest in the English pastoral. Delacroix visited England in 1825, meeting both Lawrence and Richard Parkes Bonington; the trip inspired his outdoor portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter, which Degas later bought for his private collection.
Degas’s own instincts as a painter throw the difficulties of the genre into relief. The ‘fancy picture’, as it was known, had become popular in England in the late 18th century. George Vertue first used the term to describe the paintings of Philip Mercier (which owed something to Watteau), before it was taken up by Joshua Reynolds to describe Thomas Gainsborough’s idealised portraits of peasant children. For Degas, the problem with the fancy picture was not just one of sentiment, but the treatment of the canvas as a whole. Cutesy details set against a generic rural backdrop didn’t interest him. Instead, he turned the portrait into a series of statements about tonal similarities. His considerations are always pictorial; in daring to take the portrait seriously, he calls the genre’s bluff.
Gainsborough’s Blue Boy was first displayed at the Royal Academy in 1770 under the catalogue heading ‘Portrait of a Young Gentleman’. Its exhibition at the National Gallery (until 15 May) marks one hundred years since it was purchased by Henry Huntington for a record $728,000 and shipped out to California, where it hangs alongside Lawrence’s portrait of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, known as ‘Pinkie’ (and best avoided on a full stomach). Blue Boy was painted sometime around 1770, when Gainsborough was living in Bath. For many years, the sitter was identified as Jonathan Buttall, the son of a London ironmonger who owned the painting until the mid-1790s. But more recent evidence suggests it may be a portrait of Gainsborough’s nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, who lived with him and worked as his assistant.
The dimensions are significant. Most English painters of the period adhered to three standard canvas sizes: a head (30 x 25 inches), a half-length (50 x 40 inches) and a full-length (94 x 58 inches). Blue Boy measures 70 x 44 inches, proportions similar to those Gainsborough used in works such as Girl with Dog and Pitcher and Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood. Unlike all other known portraits by Gainsborough (those that were commissioned, at any rate) this one is painted on second-hand canvas, which not only tells us something about the identity of the sitter (he was probably not somebody important), but also aligns the work with the more personal and experimental genre of the fancy picture.
In a letter to his friend William Jackson, written at the height of his career, Gainsborough complained that he was ‘sick of portraits’, but he seems, nonetheless, to have valued his fancy pictures – these were the works for which he charged the highest prices. And unlike portraits of aristocratic patrons, they allowed an artist to show off in public exhibitions. Showing off often meant paying homage to the 17th-century masters. For Gainsborough, success was synonymous with Van Dyck, who was regarded as the master of grand manner portraiture. From Bath, Gainsborough could easily visit the houses of a number of aristocratic collectors (important for an artist who didn’t travel abroad). Following a visit to Wilton House in 1764, Gainsborough made a copy of Van Dyck’s portrait of Philip Herbert, fourth earl of Pembroke, with his family. His faithful transcription of Van Dyck’s Lord John Stuart and His Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, thought to have been completed on site at Cobham Hall in the 1760s, is one of his finest achievements. Even Reynolds praised the copy as indistinguishable from the original.
The vogue for Van Dyck was not without its critics. In his Seventh Discourse (delivered in 1776), Reynolds complained that superficial imitations and adaptations were too often mistaken for works of genius:
We all very well remember how common it was a few years ago for portraits to be drawn in this fantastic dress; and this custom is not yet entirely laid aside. By this means it must be acknowledged very ordinary pictures acquired something of the air and effect of the works of Van Dyck, and appeared therefore at first sight to be better pictures than they really were.
Gainsborough’s borrowings in Blue Boy extend beyond ‘fantastic dress’ and encompass a range of technical and formal considerations. As in Van Dyck’s portrait of the Stuart brothers, a series of layered brush strokes describe the folds and sheen of the blue satin (painted from a studio prop), and there are flecks of impasted white to suggest the texture of the lace and fastenings. The contours of the boy’s face mimic Van Dyck’s lightness of touch, and Gainsborough learns from his handling of highlights – a well-placed speck of paint to indicate the moisture of lips and eyes. In composition, the painting reverses the pose adopted by George Villiers in Van Dyck’s double portrait of George and Francis from 1635, a painting that was much admired by Gainsborough’s contemporaries and made popular in copies and engravings. There is also more than an echo of the young Prince Charles’s stance in Van Dyck’s portrait The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637).
Society portraits, however instructive, couldn’t teach Gainsborough everything. How should he negotiate the relationship between foreground and background? How much could these paintings teach him about the figure in the landscape? For Reynolds, the answer lay with the Venetians. Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520) was the model here, achieving a ‘harmony of colouring’ through an act of compositional cross-dressing. In his Eighth Discourse (1778) Reynolds explained:
The figure of Ariadne is separated from the great group, and is dressed in blue, which, added to the colour of the sea, makes that quantity of cold colour which Titian thought necessary for the support and brilliancy of the great group; which group is composed, with very little exception, entirely of mellow colours. But as the picture in this case would be divided into two distinct parts, one half cold, and the other warm, it was necessary to carry some of the mellow colours of the great group into the cold part of the picture, and a part of the cold into the great group; accordingly Titian gave Ariadne a red scarf, and to one of the Bacchante a little blue drapery.
These observations are part of Reynolds’s wider discussion of the relative merits of the Venetian and Flemish masters. A portrait by Van Dyck, he argued, appeared ‘cold and grey’ when compared to the radiance of Titian. This was because the ‘masses of light in a picture’ should always be of ‘a warm mellow colour’ while blue, grey and green should only be used ‘to support and set off these warm colours’. Gainsborough’s decision to reverse this wisdom has been misconstrued as an affront to the academy – an anachronistic reading (Blue Boy was painted several years before Reynolds gave his Eighth Discourse) but one that nonetheless alerts us to the shortcomings of his colour management. Blue Boy, in spite of its name, is a rather brown painting and the fabric, for all its virtuosity, is leaden. This may have more to do with temperature than with hue: the warm and cool areas of the painting aren’t reconciled, which means that the fabric never really shines, it just tells us it does.
One consequence of this division is that the boy himself achieves a monumentality he would not otherwise enjoy. It’s clear that Gainsborough wanted him to stand out: X-rays show that he painted over a white spaniel that originally stood at the boy’s feet – a detail that would have compromised the integrity of the outline. This focus also explains why the painting is served well by reproductions that amplify the figure while flattening or filtering out areas of dissonance. The failure to make the painting cohere has inadvertently contributed a good deal to the boy’s popularity. He is already set apart.
Gainsborough’s painting of Elizabeth and Mary Linley (also on display at the National Gallery) is more subtle. The sisters had brief singing careers in London and Bath. Elizabeth, in blue, eloped to France with the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan before the painting was completed in 1772. In 1785, Gainsborough retouched the hairstyles and dresses to bring them in line with the latest fashions. Like Blue Boy, the painting draws on Van Dyck’s Stuart brothers, but here the influence is more deeply felt. The balancing of gold and blue happens within, as well as between, the elements: a warm pigment in a cool area, a cool pigment in a warm area. Gainsborough unifies the composition through touch, putting a hand on a wrist, a finger and thumb on a sheet of music. Flowers brush against a dress. There is nothing slick here; although the proportions of the figures aren’t entirely convincing, the brushwork is more keenly alive to the tactility of each surface. Of all the paintings in the small exhibition to celebrate the temporary loan of Blue Boy, this is the one that deserves attention.
When Blue Boy returns to the Huntington later this year, Lawrence’s Red Boy (1825), newly acquired by the National Gallery, will take its place. It shows the young Charles Lambton seated on a rocky ledge (though it could be a huge armchair) by a moonlit sea, looking hopelessly bored. Wordsworth called it a ‘wretched histrionic thing’ but the gallery directors disagree. They call it a ‘tour de force of technical brilliance’. Like Blue Boy, it may be part of our ‘national heritage’, but it is a painting only Degas could teach us to love.