The Frick’s extensive holdings of British art are reflected in this suite of rooms, at the heart of which is this grand gallery of British portraiture. Displayed here are works by the leading artists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries engaged in portraying privileged members of British society. All seven of the Frick’s paintings by Gainsborough are displayed together in a rare reunion.
The prominence of female portraits in this gallery reflects the taste of American collectors like Frick at the turn of the twentieth century. The exaggerated paleness of the women’s skin and hair tells of the ideals of feminine beauty in this age: wigs and hair were powdered white, even for young women, and makeup was applied to make white European faces appear even whiter, the lightness of skin associated in this culture with hierarchies of class and race. Sometimes the application of cosmetics turned deadly: lead poisoning from the use of white makeup was not uncommon in this time.
The paintings in this gallery trace a history of British portraiture over nearly a century and represent various functions of portraits: Hogarth, for example, celebrates the independence of a very wealthy self-described spinster, Mary Edwards; Reynolds pays tribute to General John Burgoyne’s military success by imagining him on the battlefield; Gainsborough offers an intimate encounter with one of the most scandalous women in Britain at the time, Grace Dalrymple Elliott; and Romney presents his young muse, later Lady Hamilton, in the first of a commercial series that benefited the artist more than the model.
By the early nineteenth century, the uncontested top portraitist in Britain was Thomas Lawrence. His extravagant vision of Lady Peel both looked back to Rubens’s seventeenth-century Flemish portraiture for inspiration and was hailed as among the greatest achievements of modern art.