Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fine Fashion from "Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family", 1752

Sunday, June 12, 2016
Isabella reporting,

This past weekend, I visited the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, PA. I was at the art museum primarily to see the exhibition Killer Heels (more about that in a future post), but I also stopped by the European galleries. There I discovered this painting: Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family at Roehampton House, Putney by Arthur Devis.

It's what is known as a "conversation piece," a specific style of painting popular in 18thc Britain that usually shows the gentleman who commissioned the painting surrounded by his family in an elegant setting to display his wealth and taste. In theory, the people in the painting have been captured in a conversation, or engaged in a well-bred pastime such as drinking tea, playing music, or resting after a long walk.

Sir Joshua Vanneck (1702-1777) was born in The Hague and emigrated to London, where he became a successful merchant - though not quite successful enough to afford the house and grounds of Roehampton House, which appears in the painting, and which was owned by the Cary family. (The Vannecks' house was Heveningham Hall, Yoxford, Suffolk.) Sir Joshua and his extended family must have been strolling the grounds as visitors. Sir Joshua's full title was 1st Baronet Vanneck, of Putney, Surrey, where Roehampton House is located, and likely explains the reason for the setting.

As 18thc artists go, Arthur Devis (1711-1769) is never mentioned in the same breath as Georgian giants like Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough. The painted Vanneck family could all be little dolls, their expressions nearly identical and their anatomy a bit uncertain. But as a chronicler of fashion, Devis shines. The silk gowns not only possess the perfect glossy shine, but also reveal slight puckers along the seams, and the lace trimmings are exquisitely captured, with the curving detail (I'm guessing) carved into the thick paint with the pointed end of the painter's brush.

The Vannecks are all stylish, according to their ages: Sir Joshua and his wife Mary Anne are conservatively dressed in clothes that are a bit old-fashioned, while their twin sons Gerrard and Joshua are dressed in the simpler versions of the adults' clothing. The young women in the center - daughters Margaret, Elizabeth, Anne Maria, and Gertrude (though I confess I don't know which is which) - are of course the most fashion-conscious.

I've pulled out several of my favorite details - as always, please click on the images to enlarge them. The embroidered kerchiefs, ruffles, and aprons (probably silk gauze or fine linen) are sheer enough to be layered over one another. Patterned ribbons zig-zag across their stomachers, the pointed inserts on the fronts of the gowns. The shapes of the hoops beneath the skirts are clearly defined. Caps are worn beneath the broad-brimmed hats. All three of these young ladies are wearing white fingerless mitts lined with a colored silk to match their gowns; you can see the pointed tips flipped back to show the contrasting pieces. And I love how the younger brother, about eight years old, is already wearing his hair in neat rows of side curls, pinned in place on either side of his face like an adult.

Details, Sir Joshua Vanneck and Family at Roehampton House, Putney by Arthur Devis, 1752, Frick Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.


Anonymous said...

Delightfully written look at a lesser known portrait painter and his perspective in painting his family. atk

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a painting where the painter basically painted the picture and then just added the faces when he had a purchaser. These were often done by itinerant painters in rural America.

Yve said...

I wonder of he had an apprentice paint the backgrounds and just concentrated on the figures and especially the clothes (which are lit as though in a studio rather than outdoors... you definitely get the impression he didn't make those wonderful little landscapes of coal and broccoli that Gainsborough used to make for his landscape lighting reference

Lil Marek said...

This painting is amusing. Devis is so good at fabrics and so very dreadful at figures and faces, you wonder at the priorities of the people who hired him. Or maybe he just came cheap. After all, not everyone could afford Gainsborough. *Grin*

sjh said...

So nice to see the Devis featured here! His way with fabrics is superb--although he often used figures/dolls in the studio to help him work out his composition--so the faces and figures tend to look similar and not have any real weight to them. The painting was made two years after his wife died, so she is not included. There is no record of the sitters, but scholarship suggests the portrait may have been commissioned to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Anna Maria (in pink), and the subjects are likely (left to right): Sir Joshua, Mrs. de la Mont (likely his sister), Henry Uthoff (Anna Maria's husband), Gerard (son), Gertrude (daughter, with telescope), Joshua (son, on ground), Margaret (youngest daughter, on ground), Anna Mara, Elizabeth (eldest daughter), and Thomas Walpole (Elizabeth's husband and cousin of Horace Walpole). They did live on an estate at Roehampton on the banks of the Thames which was known as Roehampton House--his son made extensive renovations and changed the name to Roehampton Grove--hence the confusion with what is now known as Roehampton House. Many wonderful details in this--I love the flowers strewn about strategically, and the glint of shoe buckles and hat trim, and the date and signature, camouflaged in the bark of the tree at left. The clothing is so beautiful the figures are like frosted pastries. (And, I know TMI, because I work at the Frick and have known this painting for 20+ years.)

AuntieNan said...

I'm a bit puzzled by the absence of the mother? Also, structurally what happened to Anna Marias husband's lower body? Looks like he's riding the arm of that ornamental bench! But yes, the fabrics are just glorious.
Thanks so much for posting this!
Nancy N

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