While I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last month to see the Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity exhibition, I also had to stop by some of my favorite paintings, the way every good, habitual nerdy-history-museum-goer does. Each time I see something new, some slight nuance that I'd missed before, no matter how many times I've seen the picture.
The larger-than-life portrait of Elizabeth Farren, left, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, has been one of my favs since I was a teenager taking summer classes at the Met. I've always liked the combination of the gleaming silk under the cloud-filled sky, and the story of the sitter is intriguing, too. Elizabeth Farren (c. 1759-1829) was an Irish actress who made her London stage debut at 18 in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. This portrait was painted in 1790. Her theatrical success was trumped by her matrimonial achievement: in 1797, she married the twelfth Earl of Derby, and became a countess.
What I noticed most about the portrait this time, however, was Miss Farren's muff. Oversized muffs were very much the fashion, especially for a glamorous woman like Miss Farren, and a fur one like this would have made the same stylish – and pricey – statement as a large designer handbag does today. I've written several blog posts about 18th c. muffs before (here and here, and the male versionhere), but this particular muff is the largest I've ever seen either in a portrait or as a surviving example.
But clearly the perception of Georgian caricaturists was that the large fur muffs of the day were huge, even monstrous in size. Fur muffs were a grotesque female fashion in need of skewering, which is exactly what happened. Check out the satirical print, right, from 1787, only a short time before Miss Farren sat for her portrait. This lady's muff is so extreme that it dwarfs her, which might explain her slightly pained expression - though the equally exaggerated hat might account for that, too.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.