Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Who are the people in old "stuffy" portraits?

Everyone is familiar with “stuffy portraits”. They’re in textbooks, art books, the homes of who have more money than you. . Family portraiture reached its height in the eighteenth century. When I go to museums or look at these paintings I immediately wonder, “What were these people like?” Maybe this is because I am nosy, or maybe it’s because it’s crazy to imagine a time when societal norms and gender and family roles were developing onto the course they would stay for the next few centuries. I am particularly interested in the pendant portraits that hang in the Birmingham Museum of Art, of Sir George Chad and Sarah Rowlls Chad, painted around 1775 by English artist Sir Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Gainsborough, Sir George Chad, c. 1775
Birmingham Museum of Art
Thomas Gainsborough, Sarah Rowlls Chad, c. 1775 Birmingham Museum of Art

My research mainly focuses on how we can discern changing ideas about the domestic sphere and societal roles through visual cues in paintings such as body language, costume, and even setting. In addition to pendant marriage portraits, I also consider family portraits that include parents and children.  Domestic portraiture became an important genre during the eighteenth century, making visible, changing fashions of the idealized family.  Portraiture articulated ideal gender roles and consequently educated women and men about proper behavior, dress, their place in the family, and in turn, the family’s broader function in society.   Men are usually placed in “power poses,” looking stern or indifferent. Women are imaged as soft and delicate and when children are involved, as nurturing, attending to them with watchful eyes or affectionate gestures.

I am sure we are also well aware of the fun the internet has in making fun of certain paintings that to our eyes seem ridiculous or awkward. Women look dazed or “trapped” in their worlds, while men appear smug and arrogant. A good example is John Singleton Copley’s The Copley Family, 1776/1777. At the time it was painted, the academy praised it for its “civilized sophistication combined with their natural simplicity.” But let’s be honest, when I look at it I see the “proper” soft and doting mother paying attention to her children and what appears to be an absentee dad. This satire may actually have some truth to it, considering our knowledge of the constraints on females in the eighteenth century. Men weren’t the caretakers of children, and maybe this is why the man appears so distant and unconnected in the family setting. Below is the meme.

John Singleton Copley, The Copley Family,  1776/1777
National Gallery of Art

Whether or not these assumptions or true, it is what the modern mind perceives when looking at them. So that’s why I ask: What were these people like? What can portraiture tell us about society and the customs at that time? As a woman, what would I be expected to act like? Too often people go through museums and just assume portraits represent nameless people and faces stuck in the past. So I guess the point of my research is to satisfy my curiosity and figure out whether, really, are the people in these portraits really so “stuffy’’?

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