If you're a fellow Nerdy History Person, then likely you, too, spend a great deal of time looking at images on the Internet, squirreling them away in endless desktop files and on Pinterest. Sometimes those images just seem to belong together, whether there's any historical reason for them to be linked or not.
To me, the portraits of these two ladies look like long-separated friends. Both were painted in the early 1770s. The lady, upper left, is now unknown, her identity lost over time. She was painted by Joseph Wright around 1770, and most likely in Liverpool. From the luxury of her clothes and setting, she was obviously wealthy, and she is shown at her genteel needlework (I think it's netting), her gold-fringed work bag on the table beside her. One authority speculates that she was "nouveau riche."
Wright was working hard to establish his career as a portraitist, competing (and, to his frustration, not succeeding) against the big names like Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds for more fashionable commissions. So it's likely that this woman was a prosperous merchant's wife, not a titled lady, and as lovely as this portrait is, it wouldn't have been copied as an engraving to be sold in print shops, the way portraits of royalty and the celebrities of the day would have been.
It's a very different case with the second lady, lower right. Margaret Kemble Gage was born in New Jersey to one of the more socially prominent and well-connected families in the colonies, and she had furthered her position by marrying Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America. His officers referred to her as "The Duchess," and her beauty and charm made her place in New York society before the Revolution as close to nobility as the city possessed. She was painted by Boston native John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) in 1771. The portrait received considerable acclaim, and in 1772 was sent to London, where it was displayed at the Society of Artists.
Copley was the most accomplished of the colonial artists, prodigiously gifted. It's impossible to know how he became so skillful so far removed from the artistic centers in Europe. He would have seen the work of Gainsborough and Reynolds as well as of Old Masters only through line engravings, and perhaps painted copies owned by his wealthy patrons. He longed for the opportunities and inspiration of Europe, and in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, he finally sailed for England, never to return.
It's highly unlikely that these two portraits could have influenced the other, or that each artist even knew of the other portrait's existence. They were painted at the same time, with an ocean between them. It's pure but uncanny coincidence that both ladies are dressed in the same old-rose color silk, and the same style costume, a Turkish-inspired form of fancy-dress/casual clothing called a sultana, a popular choice for 18th c. portraits. They're both wearing this costume with stylish, daring informality, the relaxed shape of their bodies and breasts showing they're without stays. Patterned sashes, gauzy scarves, and strands of pearls woven through their hair and around their sleeves complete the sense of exoticism.
Yet as much alike as their costumes are, I think it's how their faces are painted that made me link them together in my head. Both are undeniably beautiful women, but their beauty isn't idealized and flattered into bland prettiness, the too-aggressive Photoshopping of the 18th c. These two ladies are painted as individuals, as women you'd like to have conversations with; they look interesting. If I were one of them, this is how I'd liked to be painted, too.
But that's just my rambling. What do you think of these two portraits? Which do you prefer?
For more about 18th c. sultanas, please see this subsequent post.
Above: Portrait of a Woman, by Joseph Wright (Wright of Derby), c. 1770, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Below: Mrs. Thomas Gage, by John Singleton Copley, 1771, Timken Museum of Art.
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.