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Fabulous faces?
The MFA’s Gainsborough, Degas, and Sargent beg the portrait question
"Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788"
In the Gund Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts through September 10.

"In the faces of men and women I see God," Walt Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself," and the Museum of Fine Arts will be hoping visitors take those words to heart this summer when they look at the MFA’s current hope-to-be blockbuster, "Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788," and its two much-publicized new purchases, Edgar Degas’s La duchesse de Montejasi et ses filles, Elena et Camilla (reported cost in excess of $20 million) and John Singer Sargent’s Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry, Carrying the Great Sword of State at the Coronation of King Edward VII, August, 1902, and Mr. W.C. Beaumont, His Page on That Occasion (reported cost in excess of $1 million). Gainsborough himself did not have the opportunity to read Whitman, and where the American poet saw God, the Englishman who made his living from commissioned portraits saw guineas; nonetheless, by the 1760s, Gainsborough’s letters were beginning to complain of "the curs’d Face Business." Like his American contemporary John Singleton Copley and then John Singer Sargent a century later, Gainsborough brings into focus the question of when painting the faces of the rich and famous is art and when it’s just a business.

"Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788" (on its final stop following visits to Tate Britain and the National Gallery in Washington) is a major statement in that area, but for the moment it’s been eclipsed by the mega-major statement that the MFA made by buying the Degas. Back in May, the museum sold three works at Sotheby’s in New York: Degas’s Danseuse (a pastel) brought $10.6 million, his Danseuses près d’un portant (another pastel) $3.9 million, and Renoir’s Gabrielle et Coco jouant aux dominos (a painting) $1.7 million. The three pieces went in just five minutes; the $16.2 million thus raised, the museum stated, would be put toward the purchase of an unidentified work. That turned out to be La duchesse, Degas’s 1876 portrait of his aunt Stéphanie De Gas Primicile Carafa and her two daughters. The French magazine Le Point reported that the Citroen family had offered it to the French government, which chose not to meet the asking price of $200 million francs, or about $35 million. The MFA has stated only that the purchase price was in excess of $20 million.

In her "Perspectives" column in the July 2 Boston Globe, Christine Temin called the new acquisition "not a particularly winsome work" and decided that it’s outclassed by both Edmondo et Thérèse Morbilli and Le père de Degas écoutant Pagans, which now hang in the same room. She allowed that "many experts would disagree" — and indeed, in its July 6 Sunday Arts section, the Globe ran a letter in which Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, pointed out that "both Henri Loyrette, former director of the Musée d’Orsay, and I . . . were keen to add this painting [La duchesse] to our holdings. Upon his retirement as director of the Louvre, Pierre Rosenberg stated that the inability of the French government to secure the funds to acquire this work was a matter of national concern. As the news of Boston’s purchase spread, Degas specialists and curators throughout Europe and America congratulated our colleagues at the MFA for the successful conclusion of a very complicated negotiation. No one doubts the quality of this masterpiece." A reader from Lincoln, however, called the painting an "ugly ‘blue chip’ work" and contended, "Our museum has more than its share of ‘dead heads.’ " WGBH’s Greater Boston then invited George Shackelford, who chairs the MFA’s Art of Europe department, to talk about the new acquisition, but the museum declined to take part in a discussion that would give Temin further opportunity to air her views.

HAVING LEFT THE GAINSBOROUGH SHOW (which I’ll return to shortly), I walked through an Impressionist room and asked a museum official where the new Degas was hanging. He stepped through a doorway and pointed to the opposite end of the museum. "See that patch of black? That’s it."

Even at 70 or 80 paces away, the "patch of black" catches the eye the way Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit does, and it’s also prepossessing up close. Stéphanie looks at her nephew (she was his father’s sister) without pretension or affectation, the way one looks at a close relative. Seated on a faded brown divan, she’s dressed in black crepe, in mourning for her brother Achille, and there’s a resignation and an unhappiness, almost an ugliness, about her face, with its heavy eyes and grim, tight lips. At 57, she looks like a repressed, frustrated spinster; it’s hard to believe that her elder daughter is just 19. The MFA press release describes her as "a great pyramid of black against a background of blue and gray"; to my eye that background is a pulsing celadon that lifts the black figure forward, with a brighter area that forms an aureole around her head. All the life that might have been in her seems to have drained into the two girls, who, seated at the far left, are looking out of the picture frame, as if they were in a theater box. Elena, on the left, has the more severe appearance, with her long face and bouffant hairdo; she inclines her head slightly, as if to acknowledge her cousin’s presence, but she’s as aloof and reserved here as in the National Gallery of London portrait of her that Degas did about the same time. Camilla, with her rounder face and poofy cheeks and pouty lips, seems prettier, and she’s totally absorbed in whatever she’s looking at. The girls sit with their backs to their mother, as if engrossed in a future in which she’s already irrelevant. Stéphanie seems to be wondering whether their adulthood will be any happier than hers has been.

No two people look at a face the same way, and where some, like Whitman, find God, others see only "dead heads." To me, it’s La duchesse that outclasses Degas’s portraits of Edmondo and Thérèse and his father with Catalan singer/guitarist Lorenzo Pagans; seen in the same room, those portraits look a little posed, a little artificial. And though Temin refers to this painting’s "standard mother-daughter divide," it seems to me just as incisive as the MFA’s great Sargent painting of Gretchen Osgood Warren and her daughter Rachel. It’s an essay on generations, and on mortality, and on the roles women could anticipate in the 19st century. Even for a museum that already owns 95 Degas paintings, that’s not a redundant acquisition.

The MFA has more than 500 Sargents, according to museum director Malcolm Rogers, but no full-length portrait of a man. What justifies the purchase of Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry is not this distinction but its excellence as a portrait of two individuals and of a signature moment in time. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901, after a reign of 64 years, marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, just as the death of Elizabeth I 300 years earlier had marked the beginning of the end of the Renaissance in England. Lord Londonderry holds the "Great Sword of State" rigidly upward, like a phallic symbol that’s been embalmed, and in his face, whose most prominent feature is its walrus moustache, you can read duty and service but also apprehension and doubt. He’s striding forward, so that beneath the ceremonial robe his knickers and white stockings and buckled black shoes are visible, and Sargent has emphasized the shapeliness of the left leg.

Mr. W.C. Beaumont, "His Page on That Occasion," is presented in almost the same position, and though his leg looks unformed by comparison, his cherubic face bespeaks a similar femininity. His pensive expression is ambiguous: is he proud to be part of the coronation ceremony, or does he look forward to an England in which the monarchy is irrelevant? Could he anticipate that in 15 years he might be World War I cannon fodder, or a victim of the 1918 influenza epidemic? Is a painting that prompts such questions not worth a place on the walls of the MFA?

What any work of art is worth in monetary terms is another matter. The MFA has declined to say how much it paid for La duchesse, but given the $35 million price that was presented to the French government, one has to wonder whether the museum’s acknowledged "in excess of $20 million" isn’t actually in excess of $30 million. In a world where 28-year-old David Beckham can be transferred from Manchester United to Real Madrid for $41 million, that still seems a bargain (granted, Stéphanie and her daughters aren’t around to sport Adidas footwear). But anyone who asks (and Temin did) whether the money couldn’t have been better spent is absolutely within his or her rights, particularly when we’re not being told how much money is at issue.

Two years ago, the Metropolitan Museum acquired the 1830 version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes/Two Men Contemplating the Moon from Artemis Fine Arts. Up to that point, the only oil by this major German Romantic artist residing in the USA had been his Spaziergang in der Abenddämmerung/A Walk at Dusk, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Zwei Männer was auctioned to Artemis in 1999 at Christie’s in London for just over $1 million, so we can surmise that the Met paid more but not a lot more. This painting might not be a masterpiece on the order of La duchesse, but given that the MFA has nothing like it, you could legitimately ask whether it wouldn’t have been of greater interest to Boston museumgoers than another Sargent, even an outstanding Sargent. I mention Friedrich because he’s one of my favorite artists; I’m sure Temin could fill an entire Greater Boston half-hour talking about equally salient gaps in the MFA’s holdings.

MONEY IS ALSO THE ISSUE in "Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788" — that and the kind of faces that presented themselves to an 18th-century artist. What seems immediately apparent is that many of the men whose portraits Gainsborough painted were either uninteresting or unwilling to reveal themselves to the artist. MP Robert Craggs, art-auctioneer James Christie, Joshua Grigby, John Eld, Charles Cornwall (in the Boston show, though the catalogue says it’s not) all have a vacant, lowbrow look. The musicians and artists Gainsborough depicts — John Chafy, Uvedale Tomkyns Price, William Wollaston, Carl Friedrich Abel — bear the same artificial appearance of having been interrupted in their work. Those subjects who are depicted with their dogs — Lord Vernon, Reverend Bate, Mr. and Mrs. William Hallet, Lady Brisco, "An Officer of the 4th Regiment of Foot" — invariably ignore them (Henry Third Duke of Buccleuch, who’s holding his, is the exception) and invariably are less interesting (Gainsborough had an easier time seeing God in canine faces). Many of his women have no shoulders or bosom. Mrs. Lewes Peak Garland, Formerly Miss Indiana Talbot seems to be contemplating her former identity rather than rejoicing in her new life as a married woman; she died after giving birth to her second child, not yet 30.

But it’s dangerous to generalize about Gainsborough, who warned his Exeter friend William Jackson not to be "in a hurry to determine anything about me, if you are, ten to one you are wrong." He was born to a family of wool merchants in Sudbury, in Suffolk; when he was 13, his parents sent him to London to be apprenticed in the arts. A self-portrait done at that age shows a self-possessed youth emerging from the somber background; he holds his brush and palette defiantly forward and looks the viewer straight in the eye, as if to dispel any idea that he isn’t already an artist. In 1746 he married the natural daughter of the Duke of Beaufort; in 1748 he returned to Sudbury. In 1752 they moved a few miles east, to the larger town of Ipswich, but it wasn’t till 1759, when they moved to Bath, England’s entertainment capital, that Gainsborough made his mark as a portrait painter. The self-portrait that he did in 1759 is harder to read than the one from 1740: the face is impassive, and the rest is generic gentleman, with no indication of his profession or his interests. In 1774 he moved to London, where he had a rivalry of sorts with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy. In his last self-portrait, from 1787, he seems almost to be squinting at the viewer, challenging us to figure him out and, once again, warning us not to be too quick about it.

Like Copley, who had a similar success painting portraits in the 1760s (his Paul Revere, among others, hangs in the museum’s new Colonial Boston gallery) and who also moved to London in 1774 (though they seem not to have traveled in the same circles), Gainsborough walked the line between commerce and art. There’s no evidence that he flattered his sitters; one has only to compare his self-portraits to Reynolds’s classicizing Self-Portrait in Doctoral Robes (and with bust of Michelangelo) to realize how down-to-earth and natural he was. But as with Copley and later Sargent, not every sitter presented the same opportunity for artistic expression. What Gainsborough was capable of is clear in the husband-and-wife portraits of Edward, Second Viscount Ligonier and Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier that the MFA has hung next to each other. The two had married in 1766, but within months she had begun an affair with an Italian count, and on May 7, 1771, while the paintings were hanging in the Royal Academy, her husband and her lover fought a duel in Green Park. Here, Edward, in riding attire, is posed casually with one elbow resting on the saddle of his gray horse, as if he couldn’t stand on his own, and he seems to be listening surreptitiously, as if he’d just asked the horse for advice. Penelope, in a beehive hairdo, has one hand to her cheek and the other akimbo at her waist, and a dissatisfied smirk on her face.

Gainsborough’s portrait of the great actress Sarah Siddons underlines the difference between his approach and Reynolds’s. Whereas in the latter’s Mrs. Siddons As the Tragic Muse she’s Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl, in Gainsborough’s portrait she’s a fashionably dressed lady, dignified of face but sensuous in costume, with no hint of the repression of female form that marks some of the artist’s earlier work. Even more revealing is his portrait of his wife, of whom he wrote that she was "weak but good, and never much formed to humour my Happiness." Like Degas’s aunt, Mrs. Thomas Gainsborough, Née Margaret Burr looks straight at her husband with total frankness; you can read the evidence of his philandering in her eyes, and there’s a scolding turn to her mouth — it’s almost as if he’d painted his mother.

As for his landscapes, which he professed to be his true love, they perhaps deserve a show of their own, though there’s something inchoate about them, as if he’d never found the time to work out his ideas. The two that are based on actual locations, Holywells Park, Ipswich and View near King’s Bromley-on-Trent, Staffordshire, have more depth of field than his imagined landscapes, whose claustrophobic perspective raises intriguing questions about his view of the natural world (as does the cruelty in some of his later paintings, like Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting). The figures in The Harvest Wagon and Evening Landscape with Peasants Returning to Market are sufficiently characterized to suggest a story, but those in Landscape with Cows and Cottage Door with Girl and Pigs are too small and generic to have any impact.

Even the largest artist show can’t have everything one wants to see. I missed Gainsborough’s early depictions of his daughters, and The Hon. Mrs. Graham (one of his most beautiful women), and The Three Elder Princesses (the 1784 painting of George III’s eldest daughters that led to the rift between Gainsborough and the Royal Academy over where it would be hung). His most famous work, Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy, was not lent by the Huntington Library; in a witty juxtaposition, the MFA has placed a copy (probably by John Hoppner) of it next to Gainsborough’s copy of Anthony van Dyck’s Lords John and Bernard Stuart, with small black-and-white photos of the original Gainsborough and Van Dyck. The Blue Boy copy is remarkable (I’ve seen the original); to judge by the photo, Gainsborough’s homage to Van Dyck is as well.

One absence that’s puzzling but easily remedied is Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs. Thomas Mathews. The show highlights his portrait of The Linley Sisters, explaining that music professor Thomas Linley was a friend of Gainsborough in Bath and how after being sexually harassed by family friend Thomas Mathews, Linley’s elder daughter, Elizabeth, eloped with dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Gainsborough, likely annoyed by Mathews’s actions, did not finish the man’s portrait (it’s absent from the catalogue but part of the show). Many years later, he painted Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan; we’re told the wistful expression on Elizabeth’s face is the result of her husband’s forbidding her to sing in public, but not that her husband was a notorious philanderer, or that she was ill with tuberculosis and would die seven years later. The real oddity, however, is that Mrs. Thomas Mathews, instead of hanging next to her husband, is in the rear second-floor rotunda; you’ll pass it on your way from Gainsborough to La duchesse. She and her husband look equally unsympathetic. The other mystery is the show’s gift shop: porcelain King Charles spaniels galore, linens, china, even a globe of the world circa 1745 (for $1695), but hardly any reproductions of the art.

In 1771, Gainsborough wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, "Had a picture voice, action, etc. to make itself known as Actors have upon the Stage, no disguise would be sufficient to conceal a person; but only a face confined to one view and not a muscle to move to say, ‘Here I am’ falls very hard upon the poor painter who is perhaps not within a mile of the truth in painting the Face only." But as Degas did with La duchesse and Sargent with Charles Stewart, Gainsborough usually got a lot closer than a mile. He might not have found God in his sitters, but he found human truth.

Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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