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In our unit today, we will study a social movement called the Culture of
Sensibility, examining how that culture became a central part of Thomas
Gainsborough's work. We will begin here in Melbourne by using this portrait to
examine one of the most important cultural tropes through which masculinity was
performed in the 18th century.
Namely, the idea of the man of feeling. We will then journey across the
Pacific to take a look in depth at superb works by Gainsborough at the Huntington
that present discourses on other aspects of sensibility such as effeminacy, the role
of the senses, feminine agency and concern for the poor. But before we embark on
that journey, let's pause for a bit of background on the culture of sensibility and how
it came to be emulated so broadly by socially inclined individuals in both the urban
and rural spheres in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe.
The culture of sensibility first came into prominence in the late 17th century
as the subsistence economies of Europe began to be overtaken by a more robust,
commercial economy. That allowed for the development of a more orderly society,
in which a new set of social ideals were paramount. In Britain, in the late years of
the century, a campaign for the reformation of manners was undertaken by the
state and by the church. In 1689, for example, the new king requested the
Archbishop and Bishop of London to read in churches the statutes against immoral
behaviour such as blasphemy, swearing, perjury, drunkenness and profaning the
Sabbath, all considered to be essentially masculine vices. In 1692, the Society for
the Reformation of Manners was formed. In 1702, Queen Anne issued a
proclamation for the encouragement of the female virtues of piety, the prevention
and punishment of profaneness and immorality. Similar edicts were issued later in
the century by George II in 1755 and George III in 1787. Subsequently, this may
have encouraged the development of civic humanism, a movement that
encouraged the development of public virtue, liberty, and happiness over vice, self-
seeking and corruption. Civic humanism involved the principle of seeking to bring
about literacy for all citizens and the ideal that it was the duty of those who were
literate to teach literacy to those who were not. In addition, it was the duty of those
who had taste to impart those principles to those who did not.
Importantly, for our interests, the cultivation of taste in literacy also involved
the ability to view works of art. And the public galleries of the Royal Academy
founded by Joshua Reynolds incorporated viewing of works of art to all who wished

to view them. The historian E.P. Thompson has linked the Reformation of Manners to
the Protestant ethic, and to the role of the churches in inculcating sobriety, hard
work, and concern for those less fortunate.This concern also extended to the proper
care of animals and to the evolution of cruelty to animals, itself a movement in it's
own right taken up, especially, by preachers in the low church of which
Gainsborough's father was one himself. With the large changes brought about by
commercial capitalism came changes to social hierarchy as more and more citizens
where now able to pursue pleasure as a result of greater and broader financial
stability. This involved changed manners for both men and women.
The traditional values of manhood bound up with classical and warrior ideals
came under pressure as the citizen soldier was replaced by the businessman, the
bureaucrat and the professional. The term effeminacy came to be used as men
involved in the commercial world were described as feminized. So called effeminate
characteristics traditionally associated with the so called feminine vices of luxury,
fortune, and credit, all associated with the decline of the virtuous Roman Republic
into decadence, came into prominence. Economic men were speculative as opposed
to the paternal Roman figure of the citizen patriot. The manliness of the new
commercial subject, ransacking the blow was in doubt, and in contrast to the
traditional British noble warrior farmer. We will consider Gainsborough's Blue Boy in
the Huntington around the trope of effeminacy.
The third Earl of Shaftesbury and John Locke independently talked about
terms related to the new science of psycho-perception in which the nervous system
was discovered and recognised at the material basis for perception. They repeatedly
referred to sensation to tender senses, all of which were connected with what was
called the moral senses. While the two were at odds about the details of the new
sensibility, Shaftesbury warned against immoderate love and over great tenderness,
declaring that excessive pity renders us incapable of giving great succour. However,
he allowed a plausible enthusiasm, a reasonable ecstasy in transport in relation to
architecture, paintings, and music.
We will consider Gainsborough's portrait of the musician Carl Friedrich Abel,
in the Huntington, in relationship to the cultivation of the senses. The virtuous
mind, however, refused to depend on sense only but also cultivated reason. Barker-
Benfield in his magnificent study of the culture of sensibility tells us that
Shaftesbury found that the bond that unites men, the higher natural affection, was
more emotional than rational. There was, though, always a danger that the new
commercial prosperity made men lose their masculinity and fall into an exaggerated

effeminacy. These were some of the areas that worried the 18th century British



George Stubbs, it might be argued, was a more accurate, and perhaps a more
gifted painter of animals. But Gainsborough's portraits of the British establishment
are indeed noteworthy for the role played in his compositions of the emotional
relationship between human and animal sitters. I want to suggest that in
Gainsborough's art, we see the emergence of a change in the relationship between
human beings and animals. And that his pictures challenge the principles of
Cartesian philosophy, in which it was thought that animals were like machines and
felt no pain. Gainsborough was the most noteworthy painter of the emotional life of
animals, especially of dogs and horses. And this reflects both the widespread
changes taking place in the late 18th century as well as Gainsborough's unique
perspective on the attitudes of his day.
For example, let's think about the relationship in our painting here at the
National Gallery of Victoria between the soldier and his dog. And how Gainsborough
used animals to represent men as emotional subjects in a subtle and a socially
accepted way. We will examine the emergence of what has been called the man of
feeling in literature and art during this period. And examine in particular this
concept and how it is represented in the work in front of us. How are the competing
and conflicting identities of the sitter of Richard St George, as a military man, and a
person of sensibility combined in this remarkable composition? Gainsborough has
been described as a sensualist. His personality was immersed in the senses and in
the emotions. His pictures are lush, they're vibrant, they're above all naturalistic.
Gainsborough's heart was in nature and he famously exclaimed I'm sick of portraits,
and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba, and walk off to some sweet village
where I can paint landskips, and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease. And
he painted wonderful landscapes such as his seascape here in Melbourne, which
we'll come back to later.
But what he's best known for is the portraits of upper class men and women
living in both urban and rural locations. He's especially famous for his portraits of
the British landed gentry. And his Officer of the 4th Regiment of Foot is a brilliant
example of such a work. An Officer of the 4th Regiment of Foot, painted between
1776 and 1780, is a portrait of the Anglo Irish landowner Richard St George
Mansergh St George. And, in my view, one of Gainsborough's finest and most

interesting pictures. Gainsborough's portrait of the Anglo Irish landowner when he

was soldier emits a special reaction from viewers on account of the melancholy
expression and pose of the young Mansergh and the subtle rendering of the
devotion of his dog, set as it is in an atmospheric coastal landscape. Indeed the
canine and the Irishman vie for the viewer's gaze which moves from dog to the man
and back again.
This painting is unusual from a number of points of view. Firstly, St George,
who is dressed in his regimental uniform, has a distinctly unmilitary like cast. Rather
than appearing to be an enthusiastic soldier who is eagerly awaiting his
commission, Mansergh appears depressed and even melancholic. He slouches
against a rock that protrudes from the coastline and upon which he is standing. His
hat in his hand, he stares into space, apparently in the middle of a reverie.
Secondly, this hound has a very prominent position in the composition. His dog who
stands to his right gazes up to him, waiting patiently, it seems, to give assistance
and succour to his diffident master. So why would Gainsborough have painted this
soldier of the 4th Regiment of Foot forlornly located on a foggy coast, in military
regalia, with no one in sight but his faithful hound?
Such an enigmatic image is unusual in Gainsborough's oeuvre. The key to
understanding it resides in part in the circumstances in which the sitter
commissioned Gainsborough to paint the St George, it turns out, was about to set
out for America to fight in the American War of Independence. It might well have
been the case that Mansergh, and indeed Gainsborough himself, intended the
picture as a commemorative portrait in case he did not return from the war. By all
accounts, St George was a man of literary tastes who had developed an unusual
interest in gothic chivalric literature, which he'd read at Cambridge. He was
interested in all things gothic, immersing himself in the romance of the Knights of
the Templar, seeking to live the legend himself. Some say by actually taking up a
military commission as an officer in the 4th Regiment of Foot.
One observer described him as quite military mad. St George went to
America shortly after the portrait was completed. And tragically, he was wounded at
the battle of Germantown in October 1777, about 18 months after the portrait was
commissioned. He was shot in the head, sustaining a disfiguring injury, which sent
him home, and was visible for the rest of his life. The clear sense that is conveyed in
the portrait, set as it is on the coast, with the ship that would take St George to war
is of a young man contemplating an uncertain future. Here a soldier confronts the
prospect of fighting a battle in a foreign land. An important device through which
this is conveyed is the role played by the hound, who looks devotedly to his master,

and seems to wonder what the future will be. The dog looks to his master with
devotion and empathy, which is indeed unusual in any painting of the period.
Gainsborough has created a strong sense of empathy between the dog and St
George, companions together. The picture is almost a prefiguration of what was to
come, St George's horrible fate. A debilitating wound to the head, and also some 12
years later, his murder by Irish rebels on his estate in Cork in 1798. When I first saw
this painting hanging here in this wonderful room at the National Gallery of Victoria,
I was struck by the beauty of the picture, its fine brush work, composition, and
palette. But especially by the close relationship of the figure of the soldier and his
dog, each sadly contemplating their situation. The dog, his distant and melancholy
master, the soldier and the fate that awaited him. This like so many of
Gainsborough's portraits of people with their animals represents in a manner that
few other artists have succeeded in presenting, the emotional relationship between
dogs and human beings.


Gainsborough's portrait of Lord Ligonier which we will consider later, when I

have gotten off the plane in California, is a remarkable portrait of a man with a
favourite mare. Also remarkable for the close relationship, which Gainsborough
evokes between man and beast. The measure of Gainsborough's success, as John
Hayes has pointed out, may be gauged by his contemporaries remarks. Quote, it
was possible to judge a Gainsborough portrait as though it were a living person. And
in many of his canvases, we do have the sense that we are actually confronting
someone as he or she actually looked at home or went about their daily business on
the streets of Bath, where Gainsborough lived. End quote.
We know also that Gainsborough strived to represent the emotions and, in
part to the viewer, the compassion of his subject, human and animal, and their
ability to express fine feelings. Gainsborough remarked in a letter to William
Loather, one of his sitters, at the completion of his portrait, that he was sorry that
his sons had not found favour with the picture. And that they were hoping to see
more brilliancy in the eyes. But Gainsborough explained that, rather than seeking
to make the eyes appear brilliant, he had aimed to convey in the eyes tenderness
and humanity, expressive of goodness. The talent for representing the likeness of
his human sitters, in so convincing a manner, was also a feature of the way

Gainsborough was able to represent domestic animals. And especially the

relationship between animals and their human companions.
Which while clear in the work of many artists, is never quite so brilliantly
achieved in numerous subtle ways, as in his remarkable pictures. Gainsborough's
representations of animals, and of dogs in particular, is unusual in the tenderness of
feeling that he's able to convey, and it no doubt reflects his own attitude to animals.
He was a highly sensitive individual, and a non-conformist. Having been brought up
in the low church, and no doubt influenced by the sermons that his own father read
sometimes in their own church, Gainsborough took up the church's drive around the
evolution of cruelty to animals in a determined way. It is important to remember
that Gainsborough was painting in the late 18th century at a time when Cartesian
theory was continuing to exert a strong influence. Gainsborough clearly belonged to
those who opposed Descartes mechanistic views and who believed that animals too
were intelligent, emotional beings. Gainsboroughs views were democratic or anti-
anthropocentric towards the animal and the human kingdom.
The 18th century gentleman was so often represented with his hound that it
is tempting to read these joint portraits of men and dogs as simply symbolic of
aristocratic masculinity. It is particularly marked in his wonderful portrait of Henry,
3rd duke of Buccleuch. This is a gorgeous portrait in which we see the duke dressed
in a dark woollen jacket with a white ruffle on his sleeve, echoed in his lace cravat
and wearing the insignia of his aristocratic family. He has both his arms around his
fluffy hound. His hands clasped in a loving embrace. The dog sits up straight,
staring directly out of the picture plane at the viewer. The duke's head inclines ever
so slightly towards his dog in a loving gesture, and his eyes also meet those of the
viewer. Michael Rosenthal and Martin Myrone, in their catalog of the 2003 Tate
exhibition of Gainsborough's art, present a very useful discussion of what it meant
in the 18th century, to be a man of sensibility. They begin with a newspaper quote
of the meaning of the term sensibility. Quote, a lively and delicate feeling, a quick
sense of the right and wrong, in all human actions. And other objects considered in
every view of morality and taste.
By the 1860s, the ideals of philosophers such as John Locke, Francis
Hutcheson, and Adam Smith, had converged into what came to be known as the
expression of sensibility in poetry, literature, and images. Sensibility was about the
moral regulation of society during a period of great change, when industry,
commerce, and the disruption of rural life threatened to upset stable civic society.
The poor were naturally objects of attention from inner sensibility. And
Gainsborough's interest in representing them in a compassionate way is part of his

own striving for occupying the state himself. We will talk about this in more detail
when we consider Gainsborough's cottage door in San Merino.
18th Century Britain and Rosenthal and Myrone explain, was thought to have
attained a level of elegance and liberty to rival ancient times. Sensibility was a
means to expressing one's moral sense in a culture of refinement. One of the
hallmarks of a person of sensibility was an affinity with the natural world. In
Gainsborough's representation of Saint George and the Duke of Buccleuch in an
emotional relationship with their dogs, who were their affectionate companions
increases our admiration for them in what might be called the epitome of refined
sensibility. But let's now return to our portrait in more detail. What then did
Gainsborough intend his viewer to apprehend when she or he viewed his painting?
Does he successfully combine the potentially conflicting identities of the suitor as a
military man, and a person of sensibility?
Martin Myrone is not sure. He has uncovered more information about our
soldier and recounts how in the opening volleys of the battle of Germantown, on the
fourth of October 1777 Saint George was shot in the head. Taken from the field, and
trepanned, leaving him with a large hole in the side of his skull. The wound was
covered with a disfiguring silver plate, habitually covered by Saint George, with a
black silk cap and it never healed. In her epistle to Colonel St George, written in
April 1783, the writer Anna Seward noted, he now lives with a considerable part of
his head shot away. And though feeble, emaciated, and in almost constant pain, his
imagination and his virtues have lost nothing of their vigour.
Unable to face the cold and damp conditions of Ireland or England, St. George
regularly took extended tours to Europe neglecting his estates until his eventual
return to Ireland in the 1790s.
Myrone tells us that a fellow officer, Martin Hunter, left an extensive memoir.
And the dramatic circumstances of his death in 1798 prompted biographic
reminiscences on the part of a number of his acquaintances. Hunter suggests that
Saint George was more interested in being wounded than doing the wounding. A
tendency not wholly compatible with military duty, perhaps. But in keeping with
what Myrone calls his Quixotism, the idea of Saint George as a quixotic figure was
considered after he was murdered by Irish rebels on his estate in Cork in February
1798. The obituaries noted romance, his whole deportment and style of acting
seemed formed by the ideas of chivalrous ages. His constant subjects were knights,
halls, battlements, feats of arms, with stores of ladies.
However we also know that he was very concerned about the fate of workers
on his estate. And he set up various industries through which they might profit.
Mansergh St. George was an active local magistrate, appalled by the poverty that

he found on his estates in County Cork and County Galway. His response to this was
his published account of the state of affairs in and about Headford, County Galway,
in which he laments the condition of the Irish peasantry. And whilst considering
establishing a linen industry on his estates to improve matters, he doubts the
willingness or the ability of his tenants to make the enterprise work.
Mansergh St George's wife died in 1791, leaving him a widower with two
infant children. And he wished to have a portrait painted of himself as a monument
to his grief for her. The eventual result of the commission is the full length portrait
by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, now in the National Gallery of Ireland, in which
Mansergh St. George in his Irish Light Horse militia uniform leans in an attitude of
grief against a classical term inscribed non imamor.
I rest my case. Was our officer of the Fourth Regiment of Foot, a man of

Gainsborough at the Huntington


Gainsborough's portrait of Karl Friedrich Abel here in the Huntington Library

and Art Gallery in San Marino, California is an outstanding example in the history of
art of a portrait of a musician as a man of sensibility. A German composer and
musician who trained under Johann Sebastian Bach, Karl Frederich Able, one of the
last great virtuosi of the viola de gamba is seen here at his desk poised over a
musical score. Abel is represented as the consummate musician, active in his
profession, who although seated appears as a dynamic 18th century gentleman.
Beautifully dressed in a fine fabric of subtle brown and gold, he is correcting
or writing a musical score. One which he might perform on his viola di gamba which
rests on his knee. Dressed in costume that he might have worn while in concert,

he's the epitome of respectability and success, a man at the peak of his powers.
And as Christine Riding has pointed out, in this remarkable picture Gainsborough
presents a grand figure from the world of music through an image that is
harmonious and compositionally rhythmic, evocative of musical composition itself.
Gainsborough, in line with Shaftesbury's views on sensibility, and on the
allowance of excessive emotion when it came to music. Loved music, and himself
had an affinity for the viola. As well as organizing chamber concerts and designing
the sets at which Abel and his friend Christian Bach performed in Bath, he himself
performed the viola with Abel, who was his intimate friend. Whom Gainsborough
said was, quote, the man I loved from the moment I heard him touch the string.
Gainsborough's friend, Henry Dudley Bate noted, and I quote, "His performance at
the viola de gamba was in some movements equal to the touch of Able. Stressing
that the painter always plays to the feelings.
Gainsborough who sometimes wished that he were free of the labors that his
portraits required of him, was famously known to remark, I'm sick of portraits and
wish very much to take viol da gamba and walk off to some sweet village where I
can paint landscapes and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease. Vibration
was one of the paradigms of the cultural sensibility, and hearing was represented
by the 18th century French painter, Philippe Messier, in his picture The Sense of
Hearing, by women playing musical instruments. Hume emphasized the harmonic
possibilities of the nervous system in his treaties of human nature, comparing the
affections generated among human creatures to the sounds transmitted by musical
Listening to music was part of the culture of sensibility. And the definers of
sensibility while not encouraging in moderate or excessive emotion, made an
exception for enthusiasm for the visual and performing arts allowing quote "A
plausible enthusiasm, a reasonable ecstasy in transport in relation to architecture,
paintings and music". Here Gainsborough represents his admired and loved friend
through the codes of the gendered sensibility. Abel is powerful, professional and
active. Sitting astride his chair with his legs apart, he leans forward in his chair. His
bow resting at a steep angle on his thigh, his right hand poised over the sheet of
music. The momentary pause allows Gainsborough to emphasize a moment of
concentration, which he conveys through the representation of his subtle facial
expressions. This image is one of a man of sensibility, the whole styling of which
would have been unthinkable for a woman of his class to perform, or for
Gainsborough to represent in the way that he has here.

Abel asserts masculine sensibility and authority in a subtle way, as he looks

out of the picture plane, addressing the viewer with his gaze. It almost meets our
own. He's pomeranian, the subject of other works by Gainsborough, rests by his
feet. She has almost as much pride of place in the composition as his famed musical
instrument. Presenting an image of companionship, harmony, and mutual support.
Here we see a great musician at ease with his dog.
Contemporary critics commented upon the many outstanding features of the
painting with one noting quote, "It is difficult to determine whether the spirit of the
figure, the clearly marked meaning of the face, or the correctness of the dog, and
the richness of the chair cover deserve the highest commendations".
Like the portrait of an officer of the Fourth Regiment of Foot in Melbourne,
Gainsborough is using the image of the musician at work with his dog as his
companion as a means of illustrating the sensibility that included in its gamut,
cohabitation with domestic animals and their treatment. Let us now consider the
pendant portraits of Edward, second Viscount Legionnaire, and Penelope
Viscountess Legionnaire, both painted in 1771. Hanging here adjacent to Fredric
Abel. These magnificent paintings are both outstanding examples of 18th century
portraiture and also fine examples of the gender culture of sensibility.


Let us now consider the pendant portraits of Edward, Second Viscount

Ligonier and Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier, both painted in 1771 and both here at
The Huntington. These magnificent paintings are both outstanding examples of 18th
century portraiture and also fine examples of the gendered culture of sensibility.
What are the features of the cultural sensibility on display in these two paintings
and how are they gendered?
Gainsborough painted a number of portraits of the gentry and the landed
aristocracy in which horses take a prominent position, and none more so In his
portrait of Viscount Ligonier. Two months after Edward Ligonier's accession to the
title of Viscount Ligonier, his father-in-law George Pitt, who later founded the famous
library at Oxford, commissioned Gainsborough to paint the picture, together with a
companion full-length portrait of his eldest daughter, Penelope, which hangs next to
the portrait of her husband here at the Huntington, and located just behind me.
Let's begin with the portrait of Viscount Ligonier. Gainsborough presents Lord
Lingonier in quotidian mode, as an everyday man of sensibility. He is relaxed and
leaning against his horse, who is placed more prominently in the composition, and is
her master and who addresses the viewer in an engaging way.

British portraitists grappled with the problem of introducing horses into

human portraiture without physically dwarfing the man or woman who constitutes
the portraits principal subject. Through a variety of ingenious solutions, painters
have avoided direct comparisons of the human sitter and his or her equine
companion, often relegating the horse to a marginalized position within the picture.
Here by contrast, as the writer of the commentary on the Huntington's webpages
explains, Gainsborough took pains to give the two figures equal prominence, and to
ensure that direct comparisons between Lord Lingonier and his horse are all but
The placement of the Viscount's raised right arm, his dangling hat, and flaring
coat all serve to cut off the receding hindquarters of the horse so that it appears to
stand upright on two legs like the man beside it. When the painting appeared with
its companion at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1771, a critic complained, the
horse being represented, as near to the spectator as the gentleman, and being a
large object and a light color, attracts the eyes as much as the gentleman does. The
eye is equally divided between them and it is to be feared that such people, as fit to
be witty, will say the horse is as good a man as his master. And this is indeed the
effect of the picture, one that I suggest Gainsborough deliberately set out to
In a moment we will consider the portrait of Penelope Pitt, in relation to the
compositional framework of its companion. But let's look more closely at the horse,
who some commentators say here is made to take on some of the characteristics of
femininity. Some say ingratiating femininity. The soulful gaze, the horse's alertly
cocked ears and romantically flowing forelock invest the creature with an uncanny
appearance of sympathetic sensitivity. Is the mare represented as sensitive to her
master? Or is she threatening to upstage him? This portrayal of the horse may
threaten to displace Lord Ligonier as the primary subject of the picture. Or it may be
an attempt by Gainsborough to emphasize the quality of the man of sensitivity as
one who was kind and attentive to the horses upon whom he depended.
Viscount Ligonier was the owner of a very large stable of horses. And he was
known to spend long periods of time in the company of his animals, possibly to the
exclusion of his wife. Ligonier is here represented in a very relaxed, if not slightly
roguish pose, with his legs astride, while his mare stands neatly and perhaps even
modestly by his side as his equine companion. Perhaps Gainsborough simply
intended to accurately represent Lingonier with a loved mare and he has sought to
give the horse her due. His interest was to represent people and their animals in a
natural setting, embedded in the attitudes of the every day. Hence his portrait,

which is not unsympathetic to Viscount Ligonier, may be a celebration of both the

mare and her master, an informal and very lively portrait of a country gentleman
with his horse.
Let us now turn to the portrait of Penelope Viscountess Ligonier, executed in
early 1771 and exhibited with its companion in the Royal Academy shortly
thereafter, where it hung from the 24th of April to the 28th of May. In considering
this portrait, we will move momentarily away from our discussion of the
representation of masculinity and turn instead to how representations of women
fared within this 18th century highly gendered convention. The culture of sensibility
was itself a culture of women. As scholars of sensibility such as Barker-Benfield have
argued, two sides of the culture of sensibility's orientation toward reform were the
liberation of women from their internalized and brutally enforced limitation, on one
hand, and the reformation of men on the other.
Both stemmed, in part, from the reformist impulses of women who sought to
change mild manners away from the vice, drunkenness, profanity, wantonness in
the dueling culture of the masculine sphere, to a way of life that celebrated virtue,
abstemiousness, piousness, charity, homeliness and an appreciation of the arts.
Values which might be considered to be feminine. Its fundamental intention was to
reshape men, although each sex was to be softened and sensitized. Some
proponents of the culture of sensibility claimed that women were capable of all
things. Bernard Mandeville argued, there is no labor of the brain which women are
not as capable of performing at least as well as men.
Female sexuality was also emerging as a subject for scientific debate. Some
theorists of sensibility argued that women as well as men had a sex drive, and the
prominent feminist writer, Mandeville, believed that women had a sexual appetite
that was as innate as that of men. He wrote at length of the role of the clitoris in
female desire. The heroines of 18th century novels show that they wish for and
need sexuality, but with a partner tested for civility, gentleness and mutuality.
Novels were full of elopement and of clandestine correspondence between women
avoiding authoritarian husbands and their lovers. With the emergence of woman's
self-assertive consciousness came a concern over what was described as the
woman of unbridled sexual sensibility, especially among literate women.
One of the reasons that the novel came under attack was that reading them
could sexually arouse women and this made marriages uncontrollable. There are a
few portraits of 18th century women of this quality, painted in Britain, that are
associated with the level of sexual scandal that this portrait of Lady Ligonier, and
indeed its companion, engendered. Less than three months after the portraits were

complete and while they were still on exhibition at the Royal Academy, Viscount
Ligonier fought a duel in Green Park with his wife's lover, Vittorio Amedeo, Count
Alfieri. Lady Ligonier fled to France, and the Viscount sued for divorce. Dueling was
one of the practices that the culture of sensibility sought to outlaw. And in this
sense, Viscount Ligonier failed the test of the man of sensibility. That role appears to
have been taken up rather by Count Alfieri. Alfieri was a poet and playwright, today
considered to be the founder of Italian tragedy, but his role in seducing Penelope
Pitt and then leaving her would certainly not have qualified him as a true man of
Gainsborough's own account of his production of the picture suggests that his
hand was forced in accepting this commission and that he completed the pictures
under some duress. A number of the features of this portrait of Lady Ligonier seem
to suggest that Gainsborough witnessed the difficult relationship between his two
sitters and made a subtle commentary upon it in his paintings. Viscountess Ligonier
stares in a very determined way out of the picture plane and away from the viewer,
refusing to meet our gaze. Her look is independent and aloof. Her manner so
decisive that it might be described as defiant. Her attitude seems at odd with the
demure and happy wife, or perhaps she is merely lost in determined thought.
A number of writers have pointed out that Gainsborough includes a number
of attributes associated with passion in his portrait. The shell motif prominently
displayed upon the pedestal located behind her is a symbol of Venus, the goddess
of love. And resting upon it is a statue of a naked dancing becant. Penelope Pitt is
dressed in a Roman style costume of layered silks, the skirt of which she pulls with
her right hand to her hip, revealing her petticoat. During the 1770s, bunching or
draping the skirt up on the sides to reveal the petticoat became a popular device
used by artists.
This style was called a la polonaise, and Gainsborough clearly has Lady
Ligonier here represented a la polonaise. All of these features, together with the
determined expression on her face, might suggest that she has had, or will have her
way in love, and that Gainsborough is here sexualizing Lady Ligonier, showing her
as a fashionable and independent woman of her time. But her father George Pitt,
Baron Rivers, who commissioned the picture, hung the portrait of his daughter in his
house together with its pendant. The fact that he was able to do that suggests that
there was nothing particularly provocative in the way his daughter had been
As despite the scandal surrounding her, he was happy to hang
Gainsborough's portrait of her in the family estate. The portrait of her husband in

which the mare is suggestively drawn and takes pride of place may also be a subtle
commentary on Ligonier's neglect of his wife in favor of his horses. Is Gainsborough,
in these subtle ways, sexing the canvas? What do you think?


One of Gainsborough's most popular paintings is his The Blue Boy, here given
pride of place in the Huntington's Thornton Gallery, where it hangs opposite Sir
Thomas Lawrence's Pinkie, a portrait of the daughter of a planter from the West
Indies dancing on a hilltop. It became a favourite among the general art loving
public. From its first exhibition, The Blue Boy reached a level of popularity among
the art loving public rarely afforded to an academic painting, and it remains, to this
day, a favourite with the contemporary Californian. And indeed, with the
international community of art lovers. Pinky and Blue Boy make an engaging pair,
and many visitors to the Huntington head straight to the gallery to see them. Not
unlike the visitors who make sure they see the Mona Lisa, when they are in Paris.
Jonathan Buttall was for many years thought to be the model for The Blue
Boy. But Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew, who worked in his uncle's studio
and was also the model for other paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, is now
considered to be a more likely candidate. The picture is an excellent example of the
great emphasis on costume and fashion in English portraits of the 1770s. And the
blue silk suit so clearly featured in the Blue Boy became a trademark through which
Gainsborough's reputation transcended the relatively narrow interests of academic
painting into a broader popular sphere.
How we can read this portrait through the lens of sensibility? As we've come
to understand, one of the themes of the crisis in sensibility of the later years of the
18th century was concerned about the movement away from masculine values,
towards the more feminized culture that accompanied the development of
mercantile capitalism and the emergence of urbanism. The arts of cloth making,
watch making, ship building, and the production of food, went through a revolution
over the 18th century. As markets all over Europe brought much greater prosperity,
there was across the board, increased levels of luxury, and even what Simons
Scharma called an embarrassment of riches in some circles.
The representation of the fine costume of Gainsborough sitters is a feature of
his paintings of the 1760s and the 1770s. Only surpassed perhaps in the
fashionable portraiture of Sir Anthony Van Dyke, whose work Gainsborough greatly

admired. Portraiture was, of course, Gainsborough's bread and butter. And the
wonderfully skilled depiction of the sitter's costume was one of the aspects that
drew patrons to Gainsborough's studio in Bath. Susan Sloman has pointed out that
Gainsborough's background in the wool trade, his father was a weaver and his sister
a milliner, would have trained his eye to the materiality of cloth and enabled his
extraordinary skill in rendering the appearance of fabrics. Gainsborough's The Blue
Boy is certainly a young man with very fine feathers, who by his dress, is embracing
the values of effeminacy. With the new luxury provided by the unparalleled growth
of markets in the 18th century, came extraordinary grandeur of dress and with that,
a culture thought to
Men marked their apprehensions over relinquishing the older male ideals
associated with classical warriors and farmers, through a boundary they named
effeminacy. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, a prolific writer on
sensibility, was very concerned about what this meant for the morals and the public
and private behaviour of both men and women. Not long after the picture arrived
here at the Huntington, the American cartoon character Dennis the Menace
pronounced the Blue Boy a sissy. This was exactly what critics of sensibility were
worried about in the 18th century. That men had so embraced feminine values in
attempting to take on the culture of refinement, that they'd become too feminine.
It was believed that the more men refined their pleasures, the more humane
they became. And the less susceptible they were then to indulge in vices such as
gluttony, drunkenness and whoring, thereby contributing to the improvement of
public life. But were they neglecting their masculine side? The sport of fox hunting
was recommended as an antidote. Sir John Eardly Wilmot, for example,
recommended the manly amusement of fox hunting as an entirely British antidote
to effeminacy. He wrote, and I quote, its pursuit gives hardihood, and nerve, and
intrepidity to our youth. While it confirms and prolongs the strength and vigour of
our manhood.
It is the best corrective to those habits of luxury, and those concomitants of
wealth, which would otherwise render our aristocracy effeminate and degenerate. It
serves to retain the moral influence of the high over the lower classes of society,
promotes good fellowship among equal, and is one of the strongest, preservative of
that national spirit by which we are led to cherish above all things, a life of active
energy, independence, and freedom. Blue Boy is clearly not about to embark on a
fox hunt, but it still cuts a manly figure. While he's very elaborately dressed, the
pose of the figure and the direct gaze to the viewer undermines the effeminacy that
otherwise might have undercut the figure's masculinity.

Blue Boy firmly stands his ground as he looks straight at the viewer. His left
hand resting on his hip is wrapped in more loose silk drapery. His right hand by his
side holds a cavalier style feathered hat. He stands in the contrapposto pose, the
classical statuary. His ribbon shoe laces completing his study in blue. But he is no
sissy, nor is he here represented as a man of feeling. X-ray photography shows that
Gainsborough originally included a shaggy dog in the right foreground of his picture.
The dog is a water hound of the type seen in other works by Gainsborough, such is
the portrait of his two girls entitled, The Painter's Daughters. It may have indeed
been the same dog.
Here is the infrared photograph for you to study. Why do you think
Gainsborough removed the dog form the painting? How would the dog have
changed the painting had he left it in place? Do you think effeminacy is still an issue
today? Why do men and women worry about crossing boundaries and whether or
not they conform to stereotypes of gendered behaviour? Is it important? Does it
matter? Was Gainsborough being witty here, or merely conforming to the most
progressive gender codes of his day? What do you think?


Thomas Gainsborough's The Cottage Door, here in San Marino, is one of

several pictures that the artist painted on this theme towards the end of his career.
It is the last of Gainsborough's pictures that we will study in our unit on painting the
culture of sensibility. Today we'll consider how the representation of the rural poor
and the theme of charity became part of the civic culture of the 18th century. Many
of Gainsborough's works include references to labour and the working class.
Reminding us that the program of painting for academic artists in the 18th century
included a series of conventions around the representation of the poor, and in this
case, that of impoverished mothers and their children.
As Martin Postle has suggested, references to poverty were presented partly
with the aim of eliciting sympathy from the viewer. But also to remind the public of
it's own capacity for carrying out good works. In the later years of Gainsborough's
career, he turned to painting the series collectively known as his Cottage Door
series. These show country folk gathered around the open door of a cottage, usually
in a clearing in the forest. Hugh Belsey tells us that the theme of the cottage door
first appeared in Gainsborough's work in about 1770. As well as many paintings,
there are also 18 published drawings on the theme. Many show a mother with a
baby in her arms, sometimes accompanied by other women, who stand outside a
primitive cottage, surrounded by other children, ranging in age.

Sometimes a dog plays with the children, and in one, there are pigs feeding
nearby. The feeling evoked by the pictures is of a happy, but not a prosperous rural
life. These works extol the rural life as one of innocence and simplicity, while also
drawing attention to the poverty that existed in the English countryside. Uvedale
Price, the 18th century writer on aesthetics and landscape, noted that while
Gainsborough became cranky and short tempered when painting portraits and
dealing with his sitters, his mood was often more positive and upbeat when his task
was to paint these landscapes. Price noted, when we have near to cottages and
village scenes with groups of children and objects of real life that struck his fancy, I
have observed his countenance take on expression of gentleness and complacency.
Work such as the San Marino Cottage Door, here magnificently displayed,
relates to a number of strands of the culture of sensibility.In addition to the theme of
poverty and charity, if we consider the form through which the work is produced,
that is the style of the composition, the palette and the lighting, we might conclude
that an interest in sensation, so much part of the culture of sensibility, is here
invoked. This image we could even call sensational. It is striking to the viewer for
the theatrical devices that the artist has used to create effect might also be from a
play at the theatre. The palette is high pitched and designed to draw the eye. The
composition is enclosed as though it might be on a stage. Apart from
Gainsborough's clear reference to formative theatricality, this work has significant
The lesson of charity is here being suggested, as it is in a number of
Gainsborough's paintings. Here the viewer may conclude that it is the responsibility
of the well-to-do to feel sympathy for and to assist the poor, including and
especially perhaps, mothers and their babes. Gainsborough's surpassingly beautiful
Italianate picture of 1784, Charity Relieving Distress, clearly shows the lesson of
charity. Gainsborough painted landscapes throughout his career. As Michael
Rosenthal and others have pointed out, the naturalism for which Gainsborough was
celebrated, clearly seen, for example, in the National Gallery of Victoria's A
seapiece, a calm. Where the brush stroke was thought to be so scratchy, and the
image so diffuse as to lead some contemporary observers to suggest that it was
difficult to make out the subject of the work, gives way to an interest in returning to
the history of painting, through emulating Flemish, Italian, and Spanish artists of the
previous century, such as Rubens, Claude, Rosa, and Murillo.
He was also clearly very fond of the naturalism of Dutch 17th century
painting, and admired the work of Adriaen van Ostade, Jacob van Ruisdael, and
Aelbert Cuyp for example. The pictures all show evidence of the rapid enclosure of

common land as we frequently see in Gainsborough's landscapes. The poor being

driven through a countryside with carts laden with their meagre possessions. Here
Gainsborough, while interested in lessons from the history of art in the way he went
about painting, was actually also concerned about the present, and the social reality
of the English countryside at the actual moment when he was at work. Which he
represented through what appeared to be very simple and common scenes.
Ann Bermingham, in her introduction to Gainsborough's Cottage Door
pictures, quotes Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English writer, on the
theme of sensibility. Dr. Johnson wrote, to him that feels it with great sensibility, a
mind able to see common incidents in their real state is disposed by very common
incidents to very serious contemplation. In valuing what is seemingly insignificant,
sensibility set a store by things that seemed meaningless and was moved with
profound feeling in the presence of the ordinary. Sensibility, Bermingham reminds
us, was itself about an interest in and awareness to the feelings of others, and an
ability to enter into them.
The ability to feel with another. Gainsborough's cottage door pictures are
indeed studies of the ordinary, but they are also very often about empathy. These
pictures are predominantly about women and usually there is more than one figure.
Though there may be only one, as in the works entitled Housemaid, and the very
beautiful Girl with Pigs in the collection at Castle Howard. More commonly,
Gainsborough represents a group made up of only women and children. And these
sometimes range from youth to old age. Sometimes, there is a figure performing
labour, such as a man returning to the cottage bearing a load of faggots, that
complements the happy gathering. This is seen, for example, in the wooded
landscapes in Tokyo and Cincinnati.
None of he figures look out at the viewer, aware that they are the subject of
the gaze. Life is too busy for that. Here in the Huntington Cottage Door, the family
depicted consists of only a mother with her infant, surrounded by her older children.
Their clothing is simple, if not ragged. One child eats soup or porridge from a bowl,
while in other places his own within reach, asking to be given some too. The two
other children look towards the child lucky enough to be in possession of the bowl
containing the food. Susan Sloman and Ann Bermingham have pointed to the fact
that the subject of many of the Cottage Door pictures is wet nursing itself. And that
this very likely reflects Gainsborough's own concern for the care of mothers and
their children, exemplified in his involvement with the London Foundling Hospital.
While it has been suggested that the mother here bears a likeness to
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the message of the painting is surely one to do

with the hunger suffered by impoverished rural women and their children. Melinda
McCurdy from the Huntington, however, has pointed out that the figures appear to
relatively well fed and attractive. Gainsborough shows the rural poor in a palatable
manner for his predominantly urban audiences. There are many references in the
work of 18th century writers dealing with the culture of sensibility that refer to
impoverished mothers and their children. Evan Smith himself noted that the labour
of women included their roles as wives and mothers. And that no society can be
flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the members of poor are
It was also the role of aristocratic and middle class women in particular to
perform acts of charity. Jeremy Taylor urged, let the women of noble birth and great
fortunes nurse their children, look to the affairs of the house, visit poor cottages and
relieve their necessities. Barker-Benfield reminds us that Mary Wollstonecraft
herself, when she was a governess in Ireland, visited the cabins of the poor. And
that literary figures such as Hays' Emma Courtney demonstrated sensibility in the
distribution of charity when it was accompanied by quote, kind accents, tender
sympathy and wholesome counsels to the indigent but industrious cottages. Given
the number of works that Gainsborough executed that included this theme, I think
that we can conclude that he empathised with, and had a special interest in the fate
of the rural working women and their children. As a man of sensibility, it was his
duty to teach these sentiments to others. And therefore, incumbent upon him to
represent these images and themes in his pictures in order to discharge his duties.