The Goya and Gainsborough connection: Part two

  • By Dr Xavier Bray
  • Chief Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dr Xavier Bray reports back from his Goya/Gainsborough project, in which he uncovers parallels between the two artists; in his second blog, he investigates mezzotints of Gainsborough's work.

Going through boxes and folders containing mezzotints after Gainsborough’s most famous portraits at the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department has been a fascinating point of departure for the Goya/Gainsborough project. 

The majority of mezzotints that I have looked at were made soon after Gainsborough exhibited the original portraits at the Royal Academy, in the 1770s and 1780s. The mezzotints themselves are surprisingly expressive and do well to capture the painterly quality of Gainsborough’s brushwork. Working from a copper or steel plate, the surface is scraped and polished to give areas of shade and light.

Two prints after Gainsborough have so far intrigued me as possible sources for Goya: the first is a print after Gainsborough’s portrait of Miss Coghlan (1772), which shows her in profile with only her shoulders showing (1). In 1783, Goya was asked to paint a series of portraits of the Infante Don Luis’s family, one of which includes a portrait of his young wife, Maria Teresa de Villabriga (Prado Museum). Although Goya showed her wearing a much simpler hairstyle, she is portrayed in very a similar pose, from the side looking directly out before her (2).

While profile portraits are not uncommon, they are extremely rare in Spain. Nobody has yet quite explained why Goya showed her from the side. It might be linked to an equestrian portrait he was working on, for which only a sketch survives at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and where she is similarly shown in profile, but the high finish and focus with which Goya portrays her suggests otherwise. Could Goya have been thinking of Gainsborough’s portrait of Miss Coghlan? 

The second print I am interested in is a hand-coloured mezzotint after Gainsborough’s impressive and large group portrait of the Baillie family (3), now in Tate Britain. Although the print is not dated, the painting was executed around 1784 and it is likely that the print was made soon after. Group portraits are rare in Gainsborough’s oeuvre; this work depicts the London merchant, James Baillie (1737-1793), with his wife, Colin Campbell, and their four young children. Gainsborough captures well the sense of an affectionate family.

 In 1787-88, Goya was asked to paint a large group portrait of the Osuna family (Prado Museum) (4). A highly cultivated family, interested in French and British culture as well as their own, they were to have a great influence on Goya, not only commissioning several works from him but also admitting him to their cultured circle. They owned a significant collection of art and I am wondering if this collection might have included prints and if so, whether it included prints after Gainsborough. When compared, the two group portraits share the same sense of endearing informality, of the figures being animated within still a formal grouping.

The celebrated print publisher, John Boydell (1720-1804), sent prints to Madrid on two occasions, in 1787 and in 1789. We do not know that these included Gainsborough prints but my next line of enquiry is to find out what exactly arrived in Spain on those two dates.

View Xavier Bray's first blog about his project.

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