Thomas Gainsborough: Mrs. Mary Robinson

Mrs. Mary Robinson: Thomas Gainsborough

Mrs. Mary Robinson was one of the most renowned actresses and poets in 18th-century England and Thomas Gainsborough painted her portrait in 1781.

A one-time mistress of the Prince of Wales who was to succeed George IV, Robinson was propelled to fame for both her private liaison and her exploits on the stage and on the page.

These two elements – the private and the public – converge in Thomas Gainsborough’s 1781 Rococo painting here. Mrs. Mary Robinson is depicted holding a miniature portrait of the Prince in her right hand, while the picture’s subtitle ‘Perdita’ references her most famous Shakespearean role in the theatre.

Even the picture’s landscape is indicative of the setting of a theatre, with its ‘pushing back effect (repoussoir) of the bank of trees immediately behind Mrs. Robinson which is akin to a stage setting pushed in from the wings. Also theatrical, in the sense of an illusion or the unreal, is Gainsborough’s brushwork in the distant trees to the left which is painted so delicately as to be almost transparent and shimmering.

Thomas Gainsborough’s Mrs. Mary Robinson is in the Wallace Collection in London, United Kingdom.

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