Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Obsession-Causing Portrait

What was it about painting the Duchess of Devonshire?

Her son, Hart, said none of her numerous portraits captured her true likeness.  She was the lady who made Thomas Gainsborough, an expert portraitist, throw down his paintbrush in frustration and claim the image defeated his talents.  Despite this setback, we can credit Gainsborough for perhaps the most famous depiction of Georgiana.  We also have Gainsborough to thank for creating a painting which became an obsession for many.

With a knowing look and a raised eyebrow she studies the viewer from under her powdered hair and cocked picture hat, a hat named after this very painting due to women rushing to their milliners asking for a hat just like as they saw in the picture.  The hat design was one of Georgiana's own, and had a resurgence in the Victorian era where it was known as Gainsborough hat.  The painting experienced a resurgence as well in the Victorian era when it vanished.  The famous painting we see today is only a portion of the original work that so frustrated Gainsborough in 1783.

A print showing the original layout
When Georgiana sat for Gainsborough in it was at the height of her popularity.  She was a fashion leader, active in politics, and a familiar face in the tabloids.  When she died prematurely in 1806 the nation mourned her death.  By 1830 she was all but forgotten.  So is the course of celebrity.  Somehow the painting once exhibited at the Royal Academy ended up in the possession of a simple schoolteacher who was vexed by the full-length portrait not fitting over her fireplace so she cut it down to just above the sitter's knee.  The painting then spent the next 40 or so years passing through various owners before the value was realized and it was auctioned at Christies in 1875.  The Morgan Family had every intention of buying the painting and if they had been successful the Duchess might be safe in the Morgan Library today.  Unfortunately Adam Worth, an American career criminal had already decided he must have the painting, no matter what the cost.  Once again the masterpiece was tragically cut down, this time from Worth stealing it while it hung on display. The weeping garden background that so typified Gainsborough's style was now lost forever from the painting.

1871 print showing where it was originally cut
Georgiana's portrait is now Worth's captive while he continues his crime sprees.  He creepily refers to it as "The Noble Lady" as if it isn't a inanimate object, and stores it in a false bottom trunk where it remains for about twenty-five years.  Five of those years Worth spent in jail and it was only when he was released he agree to let "The Lady...go home" in exchanged for some leniency.  Despite being hidden from the world, the portrait was well taken care of and in pristine condition  As soon as Pierpoint Morgan heard of the retrieval of the painting his father intended to buy he immediately forked over $150,000 for it, an unheard of amount for artwork at the time.  Morgan displays the Duchess to the public for a short period before doing the same thing Worth did when the painting was in his possession, keeping it all to himself.  Morgan selfishly refused to even let prints be made of the acclaimed, and now especially famous, painting.

Like Tolkien's Gollum and the ring, these men wanted to keep Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana all to themselves, and like Tolkien's tale, the painting eventually made it to its rightful place and balance was restored.  In 1993 the portrait was once again up for auction and this time the then Duke of Devonshire knew where it needed to be.  As its former captor wished, the Duchess was finally going home.  The Duke and the Chatsworth trust bought the portrait so Georgiana could once again preside over her former home, Chatsworth, and be in the public eye rather than hidden away. After all, art is rarely meant to be hidden.


  1. It always amazes me, (though it shouldn't) how inane some people can be. Such a shame the original is lost to us forever, but she's home now and that's a wonderful thing.

    Thanks for this post. I'd never heard the history of the painting before.

    P.S. I could happily wear that hat!

  2. I guess technically we could say it is the orginal...just not all of it. But thank goodness we have what's left and it's not hidden away!

  3. I never knew that. What a great story. It reminds me of "The Red Violin" (great movie) and the journeys these works of art have taken.

  4. Loved the Red Violin! They cut dear Georgianna down & cut her down again, but they did not diminish that great lady one bit. Sure they cut the scenery & part of her away, but the stunning duchess comes through loud & clear.

    The painting is moreso all about her now & less about Gainsborough, if that makes sense. It would be great to have the entire painting, but this one as it is, is more up close & personal, it's all Georgianna. You notice her expression even more because there is nothing to draw your eye from her, even for a few seconds.

    This painting has always made me smile, I find myself wondering what she's up to, what mischief & fun might this elegantly dressed woman be up to, what she's thinking about with her eyebrow raised like that.

  5. Great post! I remember being really captivated by this story as well. Did you know that Worth also slept with the painting underneath his mattress? That criminal definitely was obsessed with the painting. I wrote a little bit on this same subject last year:

  6. I remember reading about this in Napoleon of Crime which is a great book about Adam Worth. They were supposed to make a movie out it starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman but they never did. Recently two people found a copy of the Gainsborough portrait in Syracuse.

  7. @CSS, I agree! There is so much appeal in the painting

    @M, Oh NO! You already wrote a great article about it! I did read that he slept with it under his bed; which means no one can even touch his Duchess obsession.

    @Elizabeth, It would have been interesting to see how that movie would have turned out. Perhaps the idea will show up on a producer's desk again!

  8. Congratulations! Your post was selected to be included in the November issue of the Art History Carnival.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. Thank you M, it is a true honor! Congratulations on your successful Carnival!

  10. Okay...that's just creepy... but it's an interesting story! when did this happen? i was probably too young to remember

  11. Wow, this is fascinating! And as a painter I cringe to hear of it being so ruthlessly cut up....I'm so happy that it wasn't lost forever and is now in its rightful home. I recently made a painting called "Georgiana", she was such an inspiring lady~!

  12. @Rebecca, Luckily you weren't around when it happened, Victorian era business!

    @Heather, It is so cringe-worthy to hear of any painting being hurt! I myself would take a bullet for many great works of art.

  13. What a strange story! Art really does have a weird effect on some people, especially the eccentric-minded ones. I had no idea that the hat picture was originally a full-length portrait. It's horrible that it got cut down twice. Sort of strange that a thief who developed such an obsessive reference for the painting later on cut it down the second time. It is amazing how Gainsborough managed to capture so much personality in his painting of Georgiana though. I can sort of see how some of the Duchess' charm, which you can definitely see in the painting, affected the thief.

  14. I didn't know about any of this sad history! At least this story has a happier ending than artwork stolen by the Nazis which has never been retrieved (though who, knows, maybe they'll still be found some time.)