This portrait is so iconic that most people seeing it will say “yeah, that looks familiar, I have seen her before” but who is she? Why do you recognize her? What did she do to be so famous?
I see hundreds of items every week that make me ask those questions. What is it? Where did it come from? Why do people care? And it is my happy fortune to get to google those items and learn a little bit about history, commerce, industry and production.
Sometimes though, I dig a little deeper to learn just a little bit more about the uncommon gifts, rare collectibles, resale junk and fine art that passes through the doors of Good Find Stores and share it with you in a blog segment I call: What Do You Know About This?
This portrait is a print of an original work by a famous painter in the 1700’s named Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788). Gainsborough was one of the most famous portrait and landscape painters in England and was commissioned for portraits of the rich and famous. His subjects included Queen Charlotte, the queen consort to George III and Queen of Hanover, King George III himself, and the fourth Duke of Argyll, among other big seventeenth century glitterati. You can find Gainsborough’s complete works online at The Thomas Gainsborough organization.
The woman depicted in this print is Mrs. Mary Robinson Perdita (1758 – 1800). Mrs. Robinson led a storied life and is still regarded as an important figure in poetry, literature, and feminism to this day. Mrs. Robinson was an acclaimed actress among her many talents and had caught the eye of the prince regent and future king of England, King George IV, when he saw her performing in a Shakespeare play. The story goes that Gainsborough was commissioned to paint Mrs. Robinson by the prince regent while they were lovers. I gather the prince had a lot of mistresses, because the painting he commissioned was not even completed before he had moved on to his next affair, leaving Mrs. Robinson, as shown here, pining for her lover in the gardens, alone but for the companionship of her pet dog. She is simping for him so bad, she is literally holding a little figurine of the King. When Gainsborough completed the work, George gave the portrait of his former lover to Francis Seymour-Conway, the first Marquess of Hertford who was the husband of his current lover The Countess Isabella Seymour-Conway!
Once the prince had moved on to his next lover, it is said Mrs. Robinson was to receive an income of 500 pounds per year from the prince. That’s about $85,000 per year in today’s dollars! Reportedly, though, the prince welched on his promise and never paid her the income. You can read more about the life of Mrs. Mary Robinson here:
Or, enjoy reading some of Mrs. Robinson’s poetry here:
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Today, the original work by Gainsborough can be viewed at Hertford House in London, England, where it is a part of the Wallace collection. The Wallace Collection is a national museum displaying the art collections of the first four Marquesses of Hertford, and Sir Richard Wallace, who is thought to be the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. You can visit the collection and learn more at The Wallace Collection.
Those seamy details make good reading, but does it explain why this image is so familiar? Probably not. Although the original work is said to dazzle with its brilliant yet delicate colors and detail, the popularity of the image probably stems from its reproduction by printers and engravers at the turn of the last century. In the early 1900’s and into the 1920’s, engravers began making reproduction print art for everyday home décor. Reproducing a masterwork like this one by Gainsborough allowed the engravers to demonstrate the superiority of their craft through the detailed replication of both subtle and brilliant colors, and copies sold for mass consumption proliferated. Oftentimes, if you find a Mrs. Robinson print in an antique store or thrift store like Good Find, you might also find the name of the engraver signed near the bottom, below the image, where an artist might sign a limited print.
The example I have has a hand-written name on the bottom, but it is the original artist’s name, Gainsborough, not the engraver’s name, and on the opposite corner is the name Mrs. Robinson. Of considerable interest, too, is the frame. This frame was made by H. Antoville Picture and Art Shop, who operated in New York in the late teens and early twenties of the last century. It has this cool, early deco-looking W at the bottom, a little scroll at the top, and an easy, shapely sway to the sides, edged with delicate vines and capped by rounded corners. In the case of this Mrs. Robinson, the frame is also a beauty.
Shop this fine example of a Mrs. Robinson at www.goodfindstores.com along with scores of other interesting art, including original art by celebrated artists.