Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan is an oil on canvas portrait by the English artist Thomas GainsboroughPortrait and landscape painter, and a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts. . The work was started in early 1785 then first exhibited at his home studio in Schomberg House on the Pall Mall in London in 1786 although at that stage it was still not complete. It depicts Mrs Sheridan (Elizabeth Ann LinleySinger who possessed great beauty, was the subject of several paintings, and a poet and writer. ), a talented musician who enjoyed professional success in Bath and London before marrying Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1773 and abandoning her career.
The artist was a close friend of the Linley family who he met when he relocated to Bath in 1759. He painted several portraits of family members including The Linley Sisters which portrayed Elizabeth aged 17 years with her sister Mary. Elizabeth was 31 years old when she sat for this portrait, one of several featuring her by the same artist. Seven years later she died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-eight.
Originally owned by friends of the Sheridans, it was purchased by the wealthy Rothschild banking family in 1872. It was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 1937.
Main article: Elizabeth Ann Linley
The artist had been a friend of the Linley family since his arrival in Bath during 1759 and he painted several portraits of them. The subject in this painting is Elizabeth Ann SheridanSinger who possessed great beauty, was the subject of several paintings, and a poet and writer. (née Linley) who was born in the autumn of 1754 but the exact date varies with sources giving 4, 5 or 7 September, at either Abbey Green or 5 Pierrepont Street, Bath. Her father was Thomas LinleyEnglish tenor, musician and composer whose musically talented children were described as "a Nest of Nightingales". , an English musician and composer, and her mother was Mary Johnson (1729–1820) who was also a talented musician. Elizabeth was the couple’s eldest daughter – there was an older brother but he died in early childhood, several of whom inherited their parents musical abilities. It is likely she began singing at concerts when she was only nine years old and made her formal stage début alongside her brother, also named Thomas, in 1767 at Covent Garden, London.
At the end of 1770, she was betrothed to an elderly but wealthy suitor, Walter Long, but the engagement was broken off shortly before the wedding took place. Long paid her compensation of £3,000 in 1771 and she also received £1,000 worth of clothing and jewellery. She moved to France in 1772 accompanied by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and an invalid marriage may have taken place in March 1772 but there are no official records to verify it. The couple were officially married on 13 April 1773 after their return to Britain, the period when Elizabeth was described by Frances Burney as “infinitely superior to all other English singers.” According to later newspaper reports their courtship was “one of the classic romances of the west country” and she was “the most beautiful singer in England”. After they were officially married Sheridan would not allow her to appear on stage in a professional capacity as he felt it reflected badly on his status as a gentleman.
The Sheridans had a tempestuous marriage as they were an ill-matched couple with Sheridan preferring city life in contrast to Elizabeth’s love of the countryside. Elizabeth begged her husband to “Take me out of the whirl of the world, place me in the quiet and simple scenes of life I was born for.” Sheridan had several affairs, as did Elizabeth, and they spent a great deal of time apart. By the time she was 36, in 1790, Elizabeth was showing signs of ill-health but had to maintain the appearance of an involvement with London society. While visiting Devonshire House Elizabeth met Lord Edward FitzGerald and they became lovers. She conceived a child by him, a baby girl who was born on 30 March 1792. The trauma of childbirth exacerbated Elizabeth’s illness and she died of tuberculosis on 28 June 1792.
Several other artists painted Elizabeth in various settings. She was the model for the Joshua Reynolds painting St Cecilia, which was successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1775, and described by Reynolds as “the best picture I ever painted.” He used her as the sitter for the Virgin Mary in his painting of the nativity scene that was burnt in the fire at Belvoir Castle in 1816. Richard Samuel included a portrait of Elizabeth in his group painting Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo (1778). In 1860 Jerry Barrett exhibited a pair of paintings at the Royal Academy that portrayed Elizabeth and Sheridan in two moments of their romance. Gainsborough was commissioned by Thomas Linley to paint his two daughters together in 1771; the work was completed in 1772 and exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. Originally entitled A Portrait of Two Ladies, it was later renamed to The Linley Sisters and shows 17 year old Elizabeth standing beside her younger sister Mary who is seated.
The oil on canvas painting measures 220 centimetres (87 in) × 154 centimetres (61 in). Gainsborough began work on the portrait in the early months of 1785 then made some alterations in the final months of 1786.
The depiction of full-figure portraits in nature was a speciality of 18th-century English artists, especially Gainsborough who delighted in painting landscapes; Elizabeth with her love for the English countryside was the ideal model for him. The composition is diagonal and is in the grand manner genre. The NGA describes the work as “freely painted” and impressionistic in style. The sitter’s garb and “the windblown landscape … reflect the strong romantic component in Gainsborough’s artistic temperament … Her chin and mouth are firm, definite, and sculptural, and her heavily drawn eyebrows give her a steady, composed, and dignified expression. There is a hint of romantic melancholy in her eyes, with their slightly indirect gaze …” British art expert and director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, John T. Hayes, noted that “The painting is executed in liquid paint, blended wet into wet, applied in many layers in order to create a rich and sumptuous effect, with thin washes in free-flowing brushstrokes for the details.”
Although using an outside setting, it is not a conversation piece; it has a certain psychological depth brought about with the attention given to the details of dress and texture as testaments to worldly elegance and wealth. The model’s hair is treated in the same manner as the leaves and branches of the trees in the background and some of the sunset’s pink glaze is reflected in the colour of her gown. The lonely tree behind her matches her isolated figure and adds to the impression of the remoteness of the abandoned feminine figure in the deserted landscape; possibly longing for something she cannot achieve in her life. A shimmering transparent effect is given to the hand-held scarf by the use of long brush strokes and thin oil colour. The portrait captures the model’s charming personality and fresh beauty; her face is the only part of the painting that is calm and solid. The paint is applied with soft and nervous, flying brush strokes. The artist is treating the surface of the woman’s gown with long zigzagging brushes of thin oil paint all the way down to her feet, to achieve the vibrant effect, versus the calm of her face.
This painting was first owned by Edward Bouverie and his wife Harriet who were friends of the Sheridans. It remained with the Bouveries until 1872 when it was sold at auction by their grandson General Everard Bouverie to Alfred de Rothschild. The painting was owned by various members of the famous Rothschild banking family up until 1936, when it was sold to the Duveen Brothers, Inc., in London. The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh bought the artwork on 26 April 1937 and it was then donated to the National Gallery of Art.
An incomplete version of the painting was first exhibited in Gainsborough’s studio at Schomberg House, London, in 1786. It was included in the display of Works of the Old Masters, associated with Work of Deceased Masters of the British School, at the Royal Academy of Arts winter exhibition in London in 1873 and again when the exhibition was repeated in 1876.
It was not exhibited again until 1936 when it was featured in Sir Philip Sassoon’s display entitled Gainsborough, held at 45 Park Lane, London. The Tate Gallery exhibition Thomas Gainsborough during 1980-1981 in London, included the painting. Later in 1981 it was sent to Paris to be part of Gainsborough, hosted at the Grand Palais. It next appeared back in London at the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition A Nest of Nightingales: Thomas Gainsborough The Linley Sisters in late 1988. The exhibition was organised as a mark of the bicentenary of Gainsborough’s death.
In the twentieth century it has been displayed several times. In 2002 it featured in three exhibitions: Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 at Tate Britain in London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris staged Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830 in 2006; although the painting was not included in Paris it did form part of the exhibition when it was repeated at the Royal Academy of Arts in London during 2007. Cincinnati Art Museum hosted Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman in 2010-2011 which incorporated the painting and in 2011 it formed part of the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition Presiding Genius: A Masterpiece a Month for a Very Special Year.