The close of the 18th century brought on change in a multitude of forms across the world. Politics and Society were changed by revolutions, scientific innovations and discoveries, colonization and trade, as well as intellectual and religious movements. Time brought on changes in ideology, views of marriage and religion, an elevation of science, and many other factors that changed many aspects of life in the Western world. In breaking our modern notions of a double portrait where a woman is wearing white being most often a wedding portrait, these paintings allude to the break in tradition happening during the time these paintings were created. Things such as a white dress, which were widely popular and fashionable in the 18th century were not indicative of a specific patron or purpose, but rather were used for a variety of reasons.
Portraits were not just for royalty, or very wealthy aristocrats anymore. Merchants, scientists, and others could commission a portrait for any purpose they desired. Similarly, painters were not just from one academy, tradition or class either. Artists were developing many techniques and styles of painting, and were involved in many different social and political movements. Even in keeping with more traditional posing and composition, individual differences in each piece show a world shifting from rigorously structured societies to more conversational and diverse culture. Even in the framework of a specific set of factors for a portrait that would have been more representative of a traditionally accepted portrait, these pieces still reveal the changing world they were a part of through small details. These paintings, while appearing to be a type, reveal the ways that the world was changing at the end of the 18th century.
Anna Marie and Thomas Jenkins, Angelica Kauffman, 1790, Oil on Canvas, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 5044
This may look like a double portrait of a couple, featuring a pretty young woman and a friendly looking gentleman, but it is actually a painting meant to serve as an advertisement for suitors for the young girl in the picture. Anne Marie went to visit her uncle who acted as an ambassador from England to Rome. This painting is not signifying the marriage between two people, or a relationship or even as a symbol of status, but has an active purpose for and between people of the time. Rather than many paintings of the time being history paintings or genre paintings, personal portraits for interpersonal use seem slightly more unusual. In the late 18th century many social and political and movements of the time were encouraging the rise of equality between men and women and commissioning a woman to do a portrait would be a small sign of such social changes.
Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (‘The Morning Walk’), Thomas Gainsborough, 1785, Oil on Canvas, The National Gallery, NG6209
This painting serves as a sort of combination save the date and wedding announcement between two young individuals- William Hallett and his wife. This Portrait was done by Thomas Gainsborough who, along with a couple others began to elevate the status of British artists as portrait makers at the turn of the 19th century. Gainsborough unlike many others did not refer back to the Renaissance, or paint in the neoclassical style that was popular during his time. Rather he uses a style later seen in works by artists such as Renoir, using loose and feathery brushwork. These individuals were not major figures in British society at the time, yet one of England’s’ more prestigious painters has done a portrait for them. Instead of a contractual depiction of the couple, the rise of affectionate marriages in society is represented in the close and affectionate contact between the man and the woman.
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Russell, John Trumbull, 1793, Oil on Canvas mounted on Masonite, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2008.1418.
While this elegant couple may look like British or French aristocracy, they two individuals actually belong to the young American business class. Mr. Russell was a very well to do Merchant in the Americas after the Revolutionary war, he was a patriot, a businessman, and a man of faith who sought to spread the gospel throughout America. Trumbull was a major history painter during the revolutionary war, but as an established painter uses a softer and intimate style of painting with these two figures. In the simple setting seen throughout portraits over the years of stone columns and the outdoors, Trumbull elevates the Merchant and his wife to the level of past aristocrats or royalty. The rise of capitalism with the foundation of America allowed for expansion of the middle class, and offered the possibility of things such as portraits previously only known to the wealthiest individuals within a society.
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758-1836), Jaques Louis David, 1788, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977.10.
While part of French aristocracy at the time, Lavoisier was far more than a wealthy man. He was one of the pioneers of the chemical revolution, as well as one of the fathers of modern day chemistry. He is shown here in what would have been somewhat of an avant-garde scene at the time, depicting a man and woman more at work than surrounded by finery to elevate their status. Lavoisier’s wife, worked with Lavoisier by translating experiments and information to and from French, as well as making technical drawings of all of Lavoisier’s experiments and inventions. Reflective of the French revolution to come, Lavoisier’s wife did not hold a passive role in the couple’s marriage, but participated actively in their partnership. While done in neoclassical style, depicting aristocrats, and by a prestigious painter, the changes coming to France are seen in its subjects and in the story of its painter. Lavoisier was beheaded as a part of the terror during the French revolution, and David was a part of the revolutionary group that brought on the deaths of thousands through the guillotine. Though working together to create a classically styled portrait, the lives of these three reveal the complex and changing nature of live at the turn of the century
Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming, Charles Wilson Peale, 1788, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, 1966.10.1
Peale is a great example of the changing landscape of life at the 18th century. While reflective of a renaissance man, Peale was not only a painter but heavily involved in American science during the 1700’s. While the couple is in traditional and fashionable garb of the day, and painted in a classically trained manner, the poses of these two break norms of the day. With established members of American society both requesting and painting this piece, it seems odd to experiment with such an interesting pose that no one had really used in portraiture. An affectionate embrace between two older individuals for their own use, by a man of many interests while not revolutionary reflects the more conversational and egalitarian society of the time.
Mr. and Mrs. John Julius Angerstein, Thomas Lawrence, 1792, Oil on Canvas, Musée du Lourve, R.F.1028
Mr. Angerstein was a prominent banker in Britain who had a great love for the arts. His work as a banker gave him opportunity to amass a prestigious art collection that previously would have only been available to those with great power such as royalty. This painting reflects the classical style of his collection. The couples poses, dress, and romanticized background are common of the popular neoclassical painting style. However neither individual looks at one another or at the viewer, which is fairly uncommon for portraits in general, especially at that time.