Natural beauty or ‘Paint-painted’? Giovanna Baccelli by Thomas Gainsborough - 1782
In 1782 Thomas Gainsborough, considered among the greatest painters of his day, exhibited a portrait of the dancer Giovanna Baccelli at the Royal Academy exhibition. A reviewer stated that: ‘the artist was not only obliged to vivify and embellish; but, if he would be thought to copy the original, to lay his colouring on thickly. In this he has succeeded, for the face of this admirable dancer is evidently paint-painted.’ Baccelli was for several years a leading and popular dancer with the company at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, and she is depicted in a costume from a recent production, also, seemingly, with stage makeup. The portrait was commissioned by her lover John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, and after the exhibition it hung at the Duke’s country seat of Knole in Kent until 1890 when it was sold privately. Eventually purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1975, it now hangs alongside other Gainsborough portraits in Tate Britain.
In the late eighteenth century female performers attained a new found celebrity andvisibility within society, fêted and scorned in equal measure, for their performances both on and off the stage. In view of this ambivalent public attitude, keeping control of one’s public image became a constant preoccupation, and portraits could provide an important counter to the increasing number of scurrilous cartoons being published at the time. In these days before photography, portraits also provided an opportunity for the public to see the real face of a star, and perhaps more importantly, a fixed likeness was created that could survive for posterity.
The paper will explore whether this portrait can be seen as an exemplar of this phenomenon, and if it can be considered to have succeeded in establishing a positive image of the star, both at the time and for posterity. The artist, subject, commissioner, and audience are all part of the story of this picture, and each will considered, in order to examine how Giovanna Baccelli’s portrait fits into the wider context of female celebrity in the late eighteenth century.
Joanna Jarvis trained in Theatre Design and lectures on the Theatre Performance & Event Design course within the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design at Birmingham City University. She is currently studying for a PhD looking at the relationship between fashion and dance costume in the eighteenth century. Joanna is also a freelance costume designer and maker, specialising in period costume; her long association with Mary Collins has led to a particular interest in period dance and how the cut of clothes affects movement.