Several weeks ago I posted this charmingly intimate portrait, left, on my Facebook page, and the discussion was so interesting - and so intriguing - that I decided it needed to appear here on the blog as well.
The lady in this portrait is Mrs. John Faber, painted by Thomas Hudson about 1750. Mr. Faber (1695?-1756) was an engraver who specialized in making mezzotint engravings of the paintings of other, more famous artists. Mrs. Faber is shown in elegantly provocative deshabille, ina silk dressing gown that is wrapped over her shift. She holds her scarf both as if to relish the sensual softness of the fur, and also to coyly expose her bare breast; she's clearly not wearing stays. The fur, the silk, and the pearls in her ears and around her throat attest to her husband's success and prosperity.
While mistresses and actresses were painted in this kind of provocative pose, it's unusual to find one of a respectable wife. Almost nothing is known of Mrs. Faber (not even her first name!), but if the 1750 date of the portrait is accurate, Faber himself was 55 when it was painted, making his wife much younger. Perhaps she was a Georgian "trophy wife," and he was sufficiently proud of her seductive beauty that he commissioned this portrait.
Or perhaps not. When I searched around the internet, I found another version of this same portrait, by the same artist, with nearly the same date. While the pose is the same, the dressing gown is not as revealing and the cap is less flirtatiously ruffled. It's also a less flattering portrait of Mrs. Faber's face.
So which portrait was done first? Was one deemed too unflattering, and a second one painted? Or was one version painted for private viewing, and another for a more public place? Could Mrs. Faber herself have asked for a portrait that showed her looking younger than she really was? Faber himself must have been reasonably pleased by the more severe portrait, for he made this mezzotint copy of it.
But more unsettling is this mezzotint engraving, right, that Mr. Faber did of the prettier version of his wife's portrait. It's a skillful trompe l'oeil version of the portrait, showing it as if the covering glass had been broken within a frame. But why would a husband choose to interpret his wife's portrait covered with jagged shards of broken glass? Is it simply a commentary on vanity, or something more ominous? (In fairness, I do have to note that some sources don't attribute this print to Faber, but to the ever-anonymous "English School.")
The explanations behind all these mysteries – as well as Mrs. Faber's side of the story – are lost now, or at least waiting to be rediscovered by some intrepid art historian. If there is one out there who has investigated these portraits, I hope she or he will comment. One fact about Mrs. Faber does remain, thanks to Horace Walpole: that after her husband's death in 1756, she remarried, to a lawyer named Smith. I can only hope she was happy.
Above: Mrs. John Faber, by Thomas Hudson, c. 1750. Private collection. Below: A trompe l'oeil with a portrait of Mrs. John Faber the younger, the engraver's wife, after Thomas Hudson. 18th c. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's.
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.