Mrs Elizabeth Moody with her sons Samuel and Thomas
Dressed in silks and gauzes that appear to shift and merge with the fleeting clouds in the distance, the figure of Elizabeth Moody (née Johnson; 1756–82), moves through a wooded clearing. She holds her sons, Samuel (b.1781) and Thomas (b.1782), closely at her sides. Her light gown and blue jacket, in the so-called ‘quasi-Turkish’ style that was the height of Georgian fashion, mirror the colours of the skyscape behind. The fabrics are expressively rendered, with visible brush marks following the sheen of the silk dress that dissolve into shimmers of light when seen from a distance. Behind the rustling silks and rippling brushstrokes of the English artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88), this painting harbours a sad family story. The slightly awkward pose, where the mother and her children have no direct eye contact, was explained when it was revealed through x-ray imaging that the portrait was originally painted as a single figure, with Elizabeth’s right hand raised to finger a string of pearls at her neck. Elizabeth died shortly after the birth of her son Thomas, and Gainsborough was asked to add the two children to the portrait a few years later in 1785, adapting the pose to accommodate them. It is possible to see a slight ghost, known as a pentimento, of another shoe to the left of that beneath Elizabeth’s dress, where Gainsborough adjusted her stance. The addition of her sons created a family portrait, memorialising their lost relationship. Echoes of this sense of loss are found in the subtle addition of a few blue flowers that resemble forget-me-knots, held in the gathered folds of Samuel’s muslin dress on the right.
The large, almost life-size scale of the full-length composition attests to the importance of the commission, possibly originally painted to mark Elizabeth’s marriage to Samuel Moody (1733–1808) in 1779. Equally important was the artist chosen to mark this occasion. As a celebrated portrait painter, Gainsborough had built his reputation on his ability to capture a likeness. His adherence to nature over idealism fuelled his infamous rivalry with English artist and president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), but it won him many commissions, with elegant figures dressed in contemporary fashions being his signature style. Gainsborough was unusual in his method of painting the entire portrait, including the background and clothing, a task that was conventionally given to hired specialists. In doing so, he developed his own artistic technique, handling the paint in a free and expressive manner, where he could consider the portrait as a whole, uniting sitter with setting, and often using landscapes as a romantic backdrop.