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The Art of Domestic Life: This well-argued study considers the changing status of women in family portraits

'That’s no lady, that’s my wife…'

The paintings reproduced in the first pages of Kate Retford’s The Art of Domestic Life are juxtaposed to good effect. On one page is a portrait by Gawen Hamilton from 1736. We see the family of Edward Harley, Third Earl of Oxford. His glum children, who are little more than little adults, pose solemnly. Father, mother and a servant are in attendance. The facing page presents a contrasting picture of the Pepperrell family by John Singleton Copley. No servant is visible. Smiling children are intertwined playfully with their parents in a dynamic ensemble. It is now 1778. Even if the latter portrait happens to be of better quality than its precedent (just as photographs in the media of slimmers “after” often seem superior to those depicting them “before”), the contrast illustrated contributes to an argument in the book that is at once clear, careful and compelling.

The years which stretch between these respective dates in the early and late 18th ?century, it is argued, span a period of upheaval. Family relations are not only ?constituted and considered, but also duly depicted in new ways. Indeed, such is the speed with which shifting assumptions about the family are assimilated by portraitists, and such the influence that these paintings can command, that it seems fair to designate artists as key ?protagonists in both the initiation and representation of the new sensibility.

Dr Retford opens her examination of family portraiture with a scrutiny of husbands and wives. Here, an enjoyably clear progression can be charted. A married couple in the earlier years of the century will tend to be portrayed by a couple of complementary paintings in which, from the confines of their own picture, husband and wife may at best gesture to one another, provided of course that they are positioned accordingly.

But the rather static ?“pendant portrait…is gradually eclipsed by the double portrait”. In later years, now within the space of one picture, husband and wife interact, testimony to the more companionate status of marriage. The conjugal postures in these paintings are certainly more informal and appealing, but Dr Retford shows how, for all their apparent insouciance, they continue to represent conventional, even patriarchal stances. Conjugal promenades become particularly popular. The married couple is pictured ambling through an arcadian landscape, which of course happens to be the property of the man. He points knowledgeably into the distance towards something—no doubt a charming feature such as a grotto or an ornamental hermit. The lady politely feigns interest, while trying to look as though she does not care that she is ?wearing her most expensive dress on a muddy path.

Women in these portraits certainly seem freer to be more natural and individualised than hitherto. But does the artistic transformation really announce a moral or social gain for women? Surely, as long as women had pictures to themselves, however stiff and archetypal their portrait might make them look, they enjoyed the freedom to be detached from their husbands, rather than being irrevocably stuck in the same space with them.

Undoubtedly, the shift from the static dual portrait to the formula of the promenade corresponds to a transformation in the regard for ?marriage, its purposes and possibilities. Dr Retford accordingly draws on plenty of contemporary ?publications—a sort of early modern marriage guidance ?literature—to sub?stantiate her arguments. But it would be interesting to know more about the transformation in the regard for walking exhibited by these paintings which are prompt to register its pleasures. Perhaps some painters are indebted to Rousseau, whose Reveries of a Solitary Walker first became known in the late 18th ?century. Rousseau preferred to walk alone, although (or perhaps because) he was married. These paintings adopt his ambulatory ethic, but not at the cost of sociability and decorum.

Husbands and wives turn into fathers and mothers in the chapters that follow. Now Rousseau’s influence is manifest. Rousseau was an early and influential advocate of breast-feeding. In fact he must have recommended it for his own children, when he despatched them, one by one, to orphanages. Dr Retford discusses not only the modernity but the propriety of the portraitists. They manage to depict modern mothers who, while never seen in the act of breast-feeding, look ready to do so at any minute.

In the next chapter, “Family History and the Politics of Dynasty”, Dr Retford argues that a new concern for portraying individuals as family members extended to integrating them within ancestral traditions. An 18th-century portrait would often be destined for a gallery alongside pictures of its ancestors. Dr Retford is adroit in showing the subtle ways by which ?contemporary portraits could be contrived to suggest a coherence even with very different precedents, thereby enhancing a sense of continuity and legitimacy—perhaps an imperative in an increasingly vulnerable aristocracy. Of course, failing that, the older portraits could always be cropped or extended to match the paintings of their descendants. Dr Retford shows that this also happened.

In the last chapter, the book’s focus changes. Such are the unfailing grace and calm of the successive happy families embraced by this book up to this point, that it is difficult to reconcile the seriousness or generality of the norms by which they appear to have lived with the unparalleled coarseness and licence said (for instance, by Vic Gatrell in City of Laughter) to characterise this same period, “the golden age of caricature”.

Perhaps caricaturists thrived in the latter half of the 18th century, not only because they were uniquely and inherently fearless, but because there was, possibly for the first time, a highly serious, secular moral consensus ready to caricature. The exquisite sensibilities of spouses and the self-satisfied doting of parents were bound to furnish plenty of new material. But Dr Retford shows not only how failed marriages and ?dysfunctional families predictably fell victim to the caricaturists and cartoonists, but how, in some cases, portraitists used their art to answer them back or to ?forestall them. Dr Retford demonstrates convincingly that the famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds is a self-conscious rejoinder to a satirical portrayal of the Duchess, who had been embroiled in a scandal involving Charles James Fox (whose name and girth were grist to the caricaturists’ mill). Whereas caricatures often ?presuppose familiarity with a serious painting, here the relations are reversed. The painting cleanses the caricature of its cruelties, while retaining its shape. Dr Retford acknowledges the rarity of this inverted, rehabilitated caricature, and indeed it is difficult to see how the ?disposition and depiction of family members in such paintings can also be ?attributable to a need to counteract scandals. The argument is suitably hesitant in places. Nevertheless, in common with other parts of this valuable study, this chapter reminds us that 18th-century portraits, no matter how individualistic or indeed aristocratic their ?subjects, could be seen by a relatively wide public. Whether on display at exhibitions or subsequently visible to tourists visiting the houses in which they hanged, these portraits communicated a changing sensibility vividly and eloquently. Their impact can be savoured again in the carefully argued and beautifully illustrated pages of this book.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'That’s no lady, that’s my wife…'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 177 February 2007