The Art Gallery

For our 19th Century Literature course, we went on an excursion to the Art Gallery of NSW. Here, we saw the canvas and paint equivalents to the writers and poets of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods in literature.



The 18th Century paintings captured well the fashion of the Enlightenment period, particularly those worn by the gentry. Only the wealthy could afford to sit for a portrait in those days, so they were the people who became immortalized in art.


The first painting was by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), his portrait of James Maitland, 7th Earl of Lauderdale, in 1759-60, depicts him as the typical Georgian rake.


He wears the fashionable breeches (or culottes) and stockings of 18th century gentlemen. This is combined with the contemporary shirt, effeminate to modern eyes, all frills and lace. Also fancy, almost royal, is the red cape that he wears. All in all, Maitland wears the fine feathers of a peacock.




For the ladies, there is Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), and his portrait of fellow painter’s wife, Madame de La Porte in 1754. She has more the beauty of china figurine, than a real woman.


Her white satin gown is extremely décolleté, typical of the Enlightenment era, decorated with gold brocade. It is trimmed with bows, on both the bodice and the ornate sleeves of the period. This is accompanied by a blue shawl. This would have been worn above wide hooped skirts, making it difficult for the ladies to pass through doors easily.




While we can’t deny that Madame de la Porte is la belle, the first word you would use for her costume is impractical. You could not imagine her doing her maid’s work, let alone toiling in the fields like the peasant women. The only gowns they could afford would be much simpler, and they definitely could not afford to sit for a portrait.


Both the subjects of these artworks are clearly aristocrats.



Forty years later, everything had changed.  Life was influenced more by the visions of the Romantic Movement, and even more so by the French Revolution.  After the Reign of Terror, women took to wearing simple muslin dresses, in a high-waisted classical style.  Although this style would later be called Empire (after Napoleon) or Regency (after George IV, the Prince Regent), it was inspired mostly by the Revolution.


John Hoppner (1758-1810) and his painting of the French dancer Madame Hilligsberg, c 1795, is typical of this time.  She wears this style of dress, her full skirts lifting clear of her ankles, practical for someone who earned her living.  Her gown is also rather décolleté, and features buckles down the front.


Marie-Louise Hilligsberg had come to England in 1787, dancing at the King’s Theatre, and dazzling the people of London.  This was fortunate for her, as being overseas during the French Revolution meant she kept that plaited head on her shoulders.  She would return home with her husband later, before her death in 1804. {Art Gallery}





3 thoughts on “The Art Gallery

  1. An outstanding summary of all the parts of the gallery that we visited Linda. I liked especially the way your descriptive powers took fire in your presentation of Hilligsberg. Well done- again.
    Now we need you to get and give some peer reviews- now that your URL is finally on the big “hit” list. Let me know when you have some peer reviews for me to see Linda.

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