It seems when art patronage transitioned from the church it landed squarely on the laps the of the landed European gentry – who used it to make their marriages immortal – far beyond the intended “till death do us part.” While the church commissioned pictures of religious subject matter –wealthy 18th and 19th century patrons chose to memorialize themselves with portraits and paintings – through the boundless talent of Gainsborough, Copley, and Sargent.
Gainsborough (1727-1788), a founding member of the Royal Academy, was one of the top artists working in Britain in the latter half of the 18th century. He was born in Sussex, U.K., the rich rural landscape of the region stayed within him throughout his life – he returned to it often in his paintings. He was a master at informal portrait art known as Conversation Pieces – in which the sitters appear engaged in conversation unaware of the presence of the artist. Gainsborough normally painted them in the outdoor settings of their large estates.
This love of husband and wife portraiture was carried to the Americas where artists like John Singleton Copley painted wealthy colonials – though the setting has moved from the informal outdoors into the opulent homes of the rich in colonial United States. While Mrs. Mifflin weaves on a tabletop loom to show her loyalties to the patriots, Mr. and Mrs. Izard chose to show themselves surrounded by fine Roman antiquities to display their fine breeding and taste.
Over a hundred years later, America’s favorite artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), is commissioned to paint a portrait of the fashionable Gilded Era New York couple Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes as a wedding present. Mr. Stokes was an architect and a pioneer in social housing, while shipping heiress Edith Stokes was a philanthropist and a socialite. She stands confidently in front with a frank gaze while he almost lingers in the background – their status and wealth emanating as much from their clothes as her confident gaze and demeanor.
Painted only a quarter of a century later – but in what could be a parallel universe – are Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase, a cleaning woman and a gardener. George Bellows (1882 – 1925) known for capturing the working class of New York, shows them in gray attire that befits their status – Mrs. Wase, holding perhaps a bible, has a face that shows the hard life she has endured. Her husband gazes disinterestedly into the distance. This is a couple of substance that has not had an easy life – we can see that they have not commissioned this portrait – it is the artist who wants to capture them on canvas.
Yet another 50 years later, David Hockney, painted the memorable and somewhat enigmatic painting of Mr. and Mrs. Clark in their meagerly furnished apartment in London. While she stands and faces us, he slouches nonchalantly on the chair – these two are not on the same wavelength – the sunlit doorway behind them does as much to separate them as their attitude. Despite the bare furnishings we know this is a well to do couple – maybe from the fabric of her dress, or maybe it’s his swagger. The more you look, the more this picture reveals about the 20th century husband and wife.
Which brings me to the iconic painting that is the fountainhead from which all paintings of husbands and wives emerge – Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting of Mr. and Mrs. Arnolfini. This mysterious and enigmatic painting is one of the most skillfully curated works of art – from the color of the room, to the oranges on the window ledge, to the one lit candle on the chandelier– each item is purposefully placed. There are as many analyses of this painting as there are art historians – the painting continues to dazzle, to puzzle, and to intrigue. I can’t imagine that an artist has ever painted a double portraiture of a couple without being influenced, even if subliminally, and inspired by the magnificent Arnolfini portrait.