Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady now thought to be Mrs William Hallett (1764 – 1833) 1788

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of a Lady now thought to be Mrs William Hallett (1764 – 1833), Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
36 x 28 inches 109.4 x 85.1 cm
Christie's New York 2nd November 1982.
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We have noted the comments of the late Ellis Waterhouse on file in the Heinz Archive of the National Portrait Gallery, London, dating this work to the very final period of Gainsborough''s oeuvre.

This painting is as suitable an example as any of Thomas Gainsborough's final manner, towards which so many aspects of his earlier style tend. The sitter's face is captured in a web of fine, feathery brushstrokes that from a distance have the appearance almost of pastel. The delicate folds of her dress are created by bolder strokes of impasto, whilst the background has been even more broadly laid in, artfully supplying a recession and an atmospheric backdrop for the sitter. Recent cleaning has revealed that the hat and some localised passages in the background and hands remain unfinished.

The portrait can be compared to works such as the full-length Lady Petre, (Huntingdon Collection) dated to 1788, the last year of Gainsborough''s life, which displays all of these traits as well as echoing the present sitter''s broad hat and ribbon, plainly the mode of 1788.

Historically, a number of Gainsborough’s late portraits such as this example have been attributed to the painter’s nephew Gainsborough Dupont. They have been seen as an outstanding example of his rather than his uncle’s work, perhaps in a failure to recognise that there was no decrease in Gainsborough’s practice in the period immediately before his death, and that Dupont’s talent was never equal to such painting. In a reappraisal of these paintings Dr John Hayes has remarked on miscatalogued examples, one now confirmed by documentary evidence1 to be by Gainsborough, Mrs Hatchett 1786 (Frick Collection, New York), and another, Miss Evans (Buffalo, New York), of which he says, ‘I am quite certain [it] is by Gainsborough himself; it relates in handling to such important late works as the full-length of Mary Duchess of Richmond; and it also relates to [the present portrait], the left arm being similar in pose.’2

The identity of the sitter is not known certainly, but a very considerable resemblance has been noted with Elizabeth Stephen Mrs William Hallett (1764 – 1833), the subject with her husband of the portrait known as The Morning Walk (National Gallery, London). This portrait, which was painted in 1785, is closely contemporary with the present example. The manner of its execution is necessarily identical, but most importantly Mrs Hallett’s physiognomy is very similar to the face of the sitter in our portrait. They both demonstrate the same long, oval face, straight, narrow nose, level mouth and, most crucially, slightly quizzical arch to the right eyebrow.

1. We are grateful to Dr John Hayes for drawing to our attention the existence of a document among the papers of the late Professor Ellis Waterhouse (P.M.F.B.A. New Haven) which records that Mrs Hatchett’s father John Collick had bequeathed to her in 1794 ‘my picture and her own picture both painted by Gainsborough.’
2. Private Correspondence with Dr John Hayes
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