Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Object of the Week: Gainsborough revealed

With the gallery and museum closed for so long, we're always very happy when one of our pictures goes out on loan to another museum where it can be viewed by the public, rather than sitting in our now very full stores.

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727-88) study for Diana and Actaeon, 1784-5,
black chalk and wash, heightened with white on paper

The latest picture to travel from Bedford is Thomas Gainsborough's study for Diana and Actaeon. It made the journey to Sudbury in Suffolk to celebrate 50 years since Gainsborough's House opened to the public and to be part of an exhibition that examines Gainsborough's only exploration into mythological subject matter. The study from the Cecil Higgins Collection is the final study of three for an oil painting now in the Royal Collection (you can see the work here).

The story of Diana and Acteon is told in the third book of Metamorphoses, a long narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid. Ovid brought together in his poem many myths that had been written in many variations in earlier texts, selecting the versions he felt were best and using the Roman names for the gods that are also known by their Greek names. For artists depicting myths in paintings in the 16th to 18th centuries it was the key work and few artists would have been unfamiliar with it. In this story Diana (or Artemis to the Greeks) is bathing with her nymphs after a hunt in:

...a spacious grotto, all around o'er-grown
With hoary moss, and arch'd with pumice-stone.

Acteon, who has also just finished hunting, comes to the clearing and disturbs the bathing party, frightening the nymphs and angering Diana. A virgin goddess, Diana furiously protects her modesty and in anger throws water at Acteon which transforms him into a stag:

...the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a deer.
A rising horn on either brow he wears...

Actaeon then flees from the scene but only lands in more trouble as he encounters his hounds who do not recognise him and pounce on him, tearing him to pieces. As he lies dying on the ground his hunting party call for their lord Actaeon to celebrate the caught stag, and he can only wish he wasn't so near to the gory scene as to be a part of it.

Gainsborough's depiction takes a more remote viewpoint from the famous painting by Titian, where Diana's sidelong glance at Actaeon delivers all her fury and vengeance at the unsuspecting hunter. The scene is more tranquil and the figures looser; Actaeon's antlers have started to appear but the group of goddess and nymphs seem calm. In both painting and the Cecil Higgins study, Acteon is rendered in the same way as the trees and rocks, with loose handling of black chalk and wash, where the bathers shine out with the lightest areas of the paper and dazzling white chalk. Diana is the standing figure in the centre; her arms reach out to fling the magical water at the intruder. Gainsborough is clearly as interested in the woodland scene as much as the myth taking place within it, and makes it almost feel the most natural thing to chance upon a goddess bathing in the English countryside.

Gainsborough had not turned to mythological subjects before and never exhibited the picture but he was in the last years of his life with a swollen neck from cancer and was perhaps reflecting on his life in a different way, on his passion for the suffolk landscape and his own love of beauty. (Andrew Graham Dixon has written more on his website about the relationship of this picture with Gainsborough's terminal illness and his impending death.)

You can see 'Gainsborough's Diana and Actaeon Revealed' at Gainsborough House, Sudbury, Suffolk until 17th Septmeber 2011.

Kristian Purcell

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