Thomas Gainsborough and Provocative Women
The curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum tells how a painting of Ann Ford, the infamous British musician and author, became the centerpiece for a new exhibit.
In real life, Ann Ford wouldn’t have had any use for a curator. But the art history gods have their own agenda. My very first semester in graduate school, years ago, they had assigned me a portrait oval by Thomas Gainsborough as my study object in a museum practicum class. And there they were talking to me on my first day on the job in Cincinnati (2007), as I gazed at Ann Ford’s portrait in the gallery during the photo shoot set-up for the members’ magazine article announcing my arrival: “Looka here, dummy! Never mind your hair, what are you going to do for hers?” So the Gainsborough show began first as a conservation effort for one of the true masterpieces in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection. However, it was always more than that, since bringing back the éclat to this stunning painting also meant restoring it for this amazing woman, who was such a cause celèbre in her day. When you were a convention-busting woman intent on fashioning a spicy public persona in 18th-century England, there was only one portraitist you went to—the one portraitist who was himself intent on busting conventions: Gainsborough. Ford was known for her musical talents on an instrument like today’s cello, and for her pugnacious public persona, evident in her writings: She produced pamphlets and a roman à clef, The School for Fashion (1800). And in his sketchy, anti-academic manner, Gainsborough was one of the true mavericks among the top-drawer portraitists of the period. In that sense, Cincinnati’s portrait certified the thesis for the show that I had intuited: that is, that the picture and the progressive femininity it imaged were the result of a special complicity between artist and sitter.
One thing I’ve learned over the years—just as I’m sure Gainsborough knew when he painted Ann Ford—is that you never want to disappoint strong women. Yet the problem seemed intractable. How to bring together a group of similar portraits by Gainsborough, when most rank among the most untouchable pictures of Western art? Fortunately, it was another strong woman who came to the rescue: I succeeded in enlisting Aileen Ribeiro, the world’s foremost expert on 18th-century women and fashion, and a professor at the Courtauld Institute in London, to write an essay for the catalog. At a stroke, my humble project was validated. The theme of the progressive (“modern”) woman and Gainsborough’s special relationship to her, meanwhile, was sound. And it helped that lenders saw the value in contextualizing our painting in this newish light: The National Gallery of Art, the National Gallery in London, the Tate, the Met, the Huntington, and the Getty, among others, all came through with the crucial loans. For such a picture-specific theme, it was really only at this point that I felt the show was actually viable—and it’s also at these moments that friends can sometimes be less than helpful. Some of my beer buddies and one male art historian who shall remain unnamed were hardly comforting in their incredulous ribbing: “Phhhwhat? Modern woman!?—you’ve lost your mind!”
Truth be told, during the months writing the essay, many a night was slept fitfully as I pondered the possibility of losing more than just my mind with an errant tack into the thicket that is feminist art history. Now I could really understand Cézanne’s well-documented doubt when daily (and nightly) the voice of my own doubt would intone, alongside a specter of Linda Nochlin (pioneering feminist art historian): “Me? taking on women and femininity in the 18th century?—Am I crazy? They’ll have my head on a pike!” Needless to say I understand—or rather, I think I have an inkling of—what’s at stake, having been trained [at the University of Texas and Brown University] by some of the sharpest minds anywhere. Now the show is finally approaching its moment in the sun: the catalog, currently in press, looks great; the talented young people we have on staff in graphics and design have come up with a presentation that will be worthy of the theme; and I hope I’ve stayed true to her legacy.
Benedict Leca is the curator of European painting and sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum.