National Portrait Gallery, London Designed to advertise his talents as a portraitist, Thomas Gainsborough’s many paintings of his wife, siblings – above all, his beloved daughters – are swift, impressionistic and captivating.
The truth of Thomas Gainsborough’s great double portrait grows more apparent with every room of this small but powerfully affecting show. The artist (1727-88) painted his daughters together at least half a dozen times, and with each image they lose a little more innocent joy. Children grow so quick.
Everyone knows that Gainsborough liberated portraiture from the old “licked” style of emollient smoothness, giving it an improvisational flourish that could put a spring in any idiot’s step and lend allure to the beefiest duchess. “Phizmongering” was his derisive term for a profession that subsidized his landscape art. But the 50 portraits in Gainsborough’s Family Album were made for love not money. No other 18th-century artist left so many images of his relatives – parents, uncles, cousins, children, nieces, nephews and assorted pets – and this is not simply because Gainsborough had an unusually large family.