Woman with a Spaniel
Maker: Thomas Gainsborough , British, 1727-1788
Date: ca. 1749
Dimensions: 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 47.1
Label Text: The identity of the sitter is unknown. Nature and artifice blend in a delightfully whimsical manner in this early portrait by Gainsborough. Painted soon after his return to his native Sudbury, it exemplifies the influences he had imbibed while living in London. The sinuous lines and predominantly pastel palette reflect the decorative principles of French rococo style, inculcated by his drawing master Hubert-François Gravelot. There is also an obvious debt to the small-scale outdoor portraits of his colleague Francis Hayman, whose eye for fashion detail Gainsborough matched in describing the woman's informal ensemble of shift, jacket, and skirt, trimmed with assorted ribbons and bows. Using an economical method of paint application similar to Hayman's, Gainsborough used the exposed rose-colored ground layer as the middle tone of the candy-floss pink drapery, mapping the highlights with applications of pure white. His aim was not merely to replicate the objective appearance of the fabric, but to evoke an impression of seeing it outdoors, spread to fulness by an underlying square hoop, and fluttering in the breeze as dappled light and shade play across the folds. The effect is very different from the glamorous sheen that the artist cultivated on other occasions, as in the so-called Conversation in a Park. In the present painting, the treatment of drapery lends an impression of lightness and freshness to the picture as a whole. Gainsborough's client undoubtedly sat to him while he painted her face, but the curious way in which her head perches atop the elongated neck, together with the stiffness of her torso and angular arms (virtually the only straight lines in the composition), suggest that she had left his studio by the time he started painting her body. As a stand-in, Gainsborough, like many of his colleagues, probably made use of a lay-figure--a small, malleable doll which he dressed in satin and lace and manipulated into position. The trees behind the figure reflect similar artistic manipulation. In addition to exemplifying the serpentine lines beloved of the rococo, they have a gestural, almost anthropomorphic quality, suggestive of an embrace. They recur in Gainsborough's drawings and paintings of this period, often in connection with an amorous theme, such as the Conversation in a Park mentioned earlier. Although the woman in this portrait is accompanied only by her dog, it is possible that her relationship with an absent loved one is emblematized by the intertwining trees. Gainsborough's later development of the theme of a lone woman seated in nature with her dog is provided by his portrait "Perdita" Robinson of c.1781-82, in which the miniature she holds in her hand stands in for the absent friend. From the base of one of these trees sprouts what should be a root but is clearly a branch. It provides a convenient support for the woman's right arm. This humorously pragmatic improvisation recalls Gainsborough's use of Mrs. William Carter's unruly springing hoop as a convenient armrest for her husband in their double portrait of 1746-48 (private collection, England). In the present painting, the suspension of the woman's arm shows off the scalloped silhouette of her flounced sleeve--a flourish that would have been spoiled had she merely rested her arm on the bank. The undulating lines of the flounced sleeve echo throughout the painting--for example, in the serpentine trees, the twisting pink ribbon of the hat, the folds of the skirt, the meandering curves of the landscape, and the decoratively treated foliage, each leaf delineated by a single, deft flick of the loaded brush. As a foil to the woman's pristine elegance, Gainsborough emphasized the rusticity of her setting. The eroding ground gives way to a pond perilously near the tiny, pointed toe of her bright blue shoe. To her right, a surreptitious vine snakes up the side of her stone seat. To her left, the warped wooden slats of a derelict fence seem to teeter on the brink of collapse. The three animals on the hillside defy identification. Their silhouettes suggest deer and one of them appears to have antlers, but the foremost among them is white and may possibly have been intended as a donkey or goat. The seated spaniel, gazing up at his mistress in attentive adoration, is far easier to reconcile with nature and could well be the only feature of the painting apart from the woman's head that was studied from life. Gainsborough was a keen observer of canine behavior, and many of his paintings gain an endearing note of humor from the succinctly captured actions of dogs. Dressed in a confectionery manner and seated in a rustic landscape, overseeing a flock of grazing animals with the aid of her trusty little dog, the woman in this portrait enacts a a polite fantasy of rural life. In one hand she toys with the satin ties of her delicate silk hat (a type called bergere, meaning shepherdess), and in the other is a brown leather volume, held beguilingly open to reveal some illegible text. It is an entertaining but insoluble riddle to speculate on the contents of the book. In the circumstances, one would like to imagine it as a volume of pastoral verse, celebrating the delights of rural life with the same stylized elegance that Gainsborough brings to his portrait.