Thomas Gainsborough, Jane Austen and Fashionable Society

The Blue Boy, 1770
The Blue Boy, 1770

Thomas Gainsborough is best known as the painter of rustic, sentimentalized scenes like The Harvest Wagon and of ultra-stylized portraits like The Blue Boy, which has achieved iconic status. A year after Gainsborough’s death, Sir Joshua Reynolds chose to celebrate Gainsborough’s “portrait-like representation of nature” and noted that Gainsborough’s excellence was “selected by himself from the great school of nature” (qtd. In Bermingham, 58). Since then, the critical consensus hasn’t much changed; it’s Gainsborough’s innovations in landscape painting that make him the proto-Romantic artist who paved the way for JMW Turner. One could look at Gainsborough’s Cottage Door with Cowper’s “The Task” or Wordsworth’s “An Evening Walk” to get a sense of the perspectives, affects and fantasies that shaped the early Romantic pastoral. This being said, I’m interested in aligning Gainsborough with the writings of the Romantic period along a different axis: it may be productive to read his portraits alongside Austen’s domestic realism. The thinking here is part of a larger project on the two artists that I’m trying to make-work. For now, what compels me about the Gainsborough-Austen connection is not their shared preference for the countryside but their ambivalent representations of fashionable people and places, often associated with the urban.

The Cottage Door, 1778
The Cottage Door, 1778

     Gainsborough and Austen both know how to charge their representations of high society with the unsettling feeling that the inner lives of others have become opaque, obscured by appearances. Attune in different ways to the social import of the visual, Austen and Gainsborough lend highly ambivalent representations of “fashionable society,” or, an appearance-conscious world of leisured aristocrats, absentee landholders and famed personages of questionable repute. The very medium Gainsborough is working in underscores the degree to which social relations are determined by what can be seen—the viewer of a Gainsborough portrait is asked to interpret a figure on the basis of appearance alone. In Austen, the visual foundations of the social are underscored through the narrator’s ongoing emphasis on looks that the heroine—and reader–must interpret. In the Bath section of Persuasion, looks are for a time the all-too unstable means to the revival of affection between hero and heroine. The structure of feeling that endures in the fashionable spaces that these artists represent is a paranoid one. I want to go out on a limb and say that Gainsborough’s portraits and Austen’s novels effect an early version of the creepy mood that Kraftwerk captures in “Hall of Mirrors.” The shared concern is that distortions of various kinds guise an essential lack of authentic subjectivity. In the remainder of this response, I’ll try to justify this assertion by linking Gainsborough’s portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott with a close reading of the Bath section of Austen’s Persuasion.

     In his portraits of young and beautiful women, Gainsborough transforms the visual effects created by gowns, hairstyles and makeup into signs of his painterly skill. Like many portrait painters before and after him, Gainsborough’s realistic rendering of expensive fabrics stood as a measure of his technical brilliance. David Brewer observes that Gainsborough deliberately located those “painterly marks that made it clear whose hand was responsible for the canvas” in the attributes of female sitters that “best highlighted their allure: their make-up, their clothing, their poses, and, ultimately, the more eroticized parts of their bodies” (569). Broadly speaking, Gainsborough’s portraits of fashionable women—the paintings in his oeuvre that the London curator Benedict Leca catalogued as “provocative women provocatively painted”–are luxury objects that rouse the kind of suspended desire that we read about in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  They expose what theorists of culture like the Earl of Shaftsbury and Immanuel Kant worked hard to deny: the link between taste and interest.

      If Gainsborough’s attention to the visually provocative and artificial aspects of a sitter’s person draws attention to the allure of his canvases, this kind of attention also places the viewer in an ambivalent position with respect to the sitter. Gainsborough is said to have “enjoyed in his relationship with his patrons a degree of autonomy unusual for the period” (Munteanu, 134) and sitters like Frances Duncombe and Grace Dalrymple may, wittingly or unwittingly, be objects of satire.

Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, 1778
Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, 1778

A paranoid reading of these two portraits finds the pull of attraction and repulsion in Gainsborough’s careful rendering of their sky-high coiffures and made-up faces. These women are extraordinarily attractive but moralists in the period would have read their beautiful features as signs of a dangerous excess. Their hair, their rouge, their jewels and their feathers might all be considered the visual manifestations of inflated consumer desires. Catherine Molineux posits that, “the ornamented female body was, in some sense, the incarnation of male desire for and fear of the consumerism that transformed eighteenth-century English society” (499). We can’t know exactly what Gainsborough’s relation was to these women but, if we look at comments made about these paintings in the period, the historical presence of an ironic distance between viewer and sitter seems entirely plausible.

When Gainsborough painted Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s portrait, Elliott’s husband had recently divorced her for adultery with the Viscount Valenia. The case was a high-profile one and Horace Walpole speculated that Elliot had “several other” “lords and gentleman” attending her (Brewer, 570). Gainsborough’s rendering of Elliott seems to allude to the sexual scandal she was associated with; she is pictured in an extraordinarily low-cut gown with her left hand drawing the viewer’s attention to her almost-entirely exposed breast. To add to this, the extravagant hair-do that she dons—one that is matched if not outdone in Gainsborough’s portrait of Frances Duncombe (see below)–was a repeated source of visual satire in the print culture of the day. The visual parallel between the portraits of Elliott and Duncombe and the more obviously satirical caricatures in circulation would have been readily available to the public eye; the portraits would have been disseminated as prints and displayed in shop windows alongside such silly caricatures as The Extravaganza.

The Extravaganza, or the Mountain Head of Dress

     When Gainsborough exhibited Grace Dalrymple and Clara Haywood at the 1778 Royal Academy, a reviewer commented,

“as the real faces of the ladies we have mentioned have not been seen by the world for many a year, they were very fit subjects for Mr. Gainsborough’s pencil, since he is rather apt to put that sort of countenance upon his female portraits, which is laughably described in the School of Scandal as coming in the morning and going away at night, than to blend what is, properly speaking, nature, red and white” (qtd in Rosenthal, 277).

Like Pope does in “Epistle to a Lady: of the Characters of Women,” the commenter takes women’s reliance on “paint” as an object of ridicule. If the “real faces” of Gainsborough’s women cannot be seen, the possibility of recognition and thus respect for the sitter is foreclosed. Elliott and Haywood become nothing more than false and unnatural social exteriors, all the more dangerous for their seductive appeal. The dehumanizing effect of these paintings was more explicitly acknowledged by another set of reviewers who commented that Gainsborough’s

“lovely creatures of fashion” “have so little about them that looks like common Nature, that surely they are another race of Beings…and did we not know that they eat, sleep and would couch with men in the fair face of heaven, we could never think them mortal” (qtd in Rosenthal, 278).

While these latter reviewers are obviously unsettled by the appearance of Dalrymple and Haywood, an anxiety about modern identities in general is, I’d argue, latent in both comments. As the commenter makes the unnaturalness of the sitter an explicit point of interest, he fails to appreciate what these paintings communicate about the larger culture in which the individual pictured is situated. For me, these portraits epitomize an acquisitive bourgeois culture calibrated to benefit those with (what we now call) cultural capital and style; Gainsborough’s dressy beauties are immersed in a commercial world. As eighteenth-century reviewers displace their anxieties onto the body of the au courant woman,  they evade the melancholic apprehension that the entire cultural milieu about which they write lacks a durable inner core, a clearly communicable moral and political purpose. The sitter becomes the vehicle of the anxiety, hovering about gentility in all of its forms, that being and appearing may be entirely disjointed.

Mrs. Graham, 1777

I began to think that knowledge of Gainsborough’s paintings might enrich my understanding of Austen’s novels after seeing Gainsborough’s portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott at the MET Museum. Looking at the painting, I wondered: did Austen know the story of Grace Elliott when she was writing Persuasion? A little refresher on the plot of Austen’s last novel: Lady Dalrymple is a character who is talked about but never developed. A relative of the novel’s centralized landed family—the Elliots–she is Irish nobility. When she and her daughter—Miss Carteret–arrive in Bath, the vanity-driven Walter and Elizabeth Elliot scramble to make their relationship with her public and visible to all. The heroine Anne remains stubbornly unconvinced that all the pains that her father and sister take to secure the “connexion” are well spent: “they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of ‘a charming woman,’ because she had a smile and a civil answer for every body” (121-22). After Gainsborough painted Grace Dalrymple’s first portrait (he did two), she became even more notorious as the mistress to the Prince of Wales. If the association between Austen’s character and the historical figure of ‘Dally the Tall’ holds, then the Elliots may be entangled in high society scandal. Margaret Doody speculates that “there is a hidden joke, a potentially dirty meaning, in wishing to see ‘Lady Dalrymple’” (176).

The Hon. Frances Duncombe
The Hon. Frances Duncombe, 1777

Jokes aside, the inexact alignment of Gainsborough’s painting with Austen’s novel highlights the pathetic quality of both of artist’s representations of a type—the woman at the height of fashion. Both the painter and the writer create a disjunction between the highly visible presence of the high-society woman and her implied “natural” being. Anne strips Lady Dalrymple of inner qualities—of “manner, accomplishment” and “understanding”–as she reduces her to a “smile” and “civil answer.” Lady Dalrymple remains peripheral in Persuasion—she is given no dialogue and her thoughts or feelings are inaccessible. In a way, Austen’s rendering of Lady Dalrymple is analogous to Gainsborough’s rendering of Grace Dalrymple Elliott: the viewer who wonders if Gainsborough’s sitter eats and sleeps like other human beings is akin to a reader who wonders if there is anything human about the Viscountess Dalrymple that Anne might have missed. Because Austen’s character Lady Dalrymple is positioned nearer to the top of the social ladder than any other character in Austen’s novel, there’s no urgent need for us to recover her subjectivity. And this is fine: I’m less interested in the historical person or fictional interiority per se than in the epistemological problem that Austen’s characterization and Gainsborough’s painting both dramatize—the problem of not being able to read other people. And there are plenty of other characters besides Lady Dalrymple in the Bath section of Persuasion that emerge as troublingly unknowable, even outright deceptive.

Gainsborough couldn’t stand the “fictitious Character of the Gentleman” and Austen’s creation of the baldly deceptive character, Sir William Elliot, suggests that she may have agreed with Gainsborough that a good surface appearance could function as a kind of mask. Though William Elliot’s manners are “so exactly what they ought to be,” his “true sentiments” are difficult to ascertain; the sordid crimes that reveal his “real character” are exposed towards the novel’s end. Mrs. Clay is a counterpart of the socially calculating gentleman—as capable of “constant deception” as he is, she aims to flatter the insipid baronet Sir Elliot into thoughts of re-marriage. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that some of Austen’s most duplicitous characters begin to take up narrative space in Bath. The crowdedness of the private parties and small interior spaces in this city forces the presence of others upon the heroine’s consciousness. She and the reader alike must reckon with inscrutable personalities, if only because they insistently hang around. Anne’s is the struggle to navigate a world of personal relations where a lack of transparency makes it difficult to know other people’s “true characters” or “real faces.”


Austen, Jane, Deidre Lynch, and James Kinsley. Persuasion. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bermingham, Ann. Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Brewer, David A. (David Allen). “Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 44, no. 4 (2011): 569–72.

Doody, Margaret Anne. Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, 2015.

Munteanu, Anca. “Confessional Texts Versus Visual Representation: The Portraits of Mary Darby Robinson.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9, no. 2 (2009): 124–52.

Rosenthal, Michael, and Thomas Gainsborough, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: “A Little Business for the Eye.” New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.