Sunday, April 21, 2013

Big & Bigger Muffs: Reality vs. Caricature c. 1790

Sunday, April 21, 2013
Isabella reporting,

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 version here), 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.

Top left: Elizabeth Farren, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lower right: The muff, published by SW Fores, London, 1787. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Hels said...

The portrait of Elizabeth Farren by Sir Thomas Lawrence was elegant and respectful.

The caricature might not have JUST been saying that the large fur muffs of the day were huge and grotesque. I think he was lampooning the actress' rise into the nobility via the bedroom. The word muff and the location of its hugeness suggests a distinct lack of respect for the "countess".

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hels - I agree that muffs are certainly sexually-charged items, which helped make them a favorite with the caricaturists. But it's not the case here: not only is this cartoon lampooning the fashion for muffs in general, not Miss Farren, but it also dates from 1787, a decade before she married the earl.

Miss Farren was apparently not one of the fast & loose actresses of the time, and her virtue was so well-regarded that, after her marriage, even Queen Charlotte had no problem receiving her in her Drawing-Room.

Which is not to say Miss Farren and the Earl weren't targets for the artists. Here's a particularly cruel caricature of the two of them by James Gillray (and no muff in sight!):

Laurie Evans said...

How interesting!

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