While some eighteenth century artists were more concerned with the careful positioning of fragments of fabric on otherwise nude bodies, others further developed the depiction of clothing.
In his The Italian Comedians, which Antoine Watteau completed in about 1720, he drew on the costumes of the commedia dell’arte. Pierrot stands centre-stage, surrounded by an assortment of characters and styles of dress. Surface textures rely heavily on irregular marks to form folds and wrinkles which look thoroughly natural.
Rosalba Carriera’s pastel portraits showed the way ahead for figurative painters. The face and any other exposed flesh is rendered smoothly with the finest detail in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci. But the clothes are merely sketched in, as shown in the detail below. What appeared from a distance to be fine details in lace and embroidery turn out on closer examination to be quick and irregular squiggles, a brilliant illusion.
Those painting in oils, like Jean François de Troy, in his Bathsheba at her Bath from 1750, were sometimes slower to adopt this more painterly approach. As a result their fabrics appear more staid and uniform in weight and feel.
Contemporary fashion displaced dress which had remained rooted in a post-mediaeval revision of the classical. The torso of the blindfolded young woman in Fragonard’s Blind-Man’s Buff (1750-52) is tightly constricted by a tubular corset into what appears to be an anatomically impossible figure.
The most lavish depictions of fabrics and garments were the preserve of the top portrait painters, figures like Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Angelica Kauffmann, who flourished from the vanity of the rich.
Gainsborough’s portrait of Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) (1760), above and detail below, is above all a tribute to the dressmaker’s art. Its apparently rich detail (above) turns out to be a lexicon of different marks, seemingly jumbled together (below). These somehow organise and assemble themselves into the whole gown.
Gainsborough’s portrait of Mary Little, Later Lady Carr (c 1763) is similarly painterly in her dress. But the artist’s reputation was for painting in thin layers, and for the fine detail in his landscapes, not this Venetian boldness.
Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Elizabeth, Countess of Warwick from about 1780, shown above and in the detail below, has remarkably loose brushwork in her hat and its extraordinary ribbons and feathers. She too is confined in a corset that enforces a tiny waist.
Another hugely popular portrait painter of the day, Angelica Kauffmann was Swiss by birth, but took Europe by storm from London. Her Portrait of Eleanor, Countess of Lauderdale (c 1780-1) is contemporary with Reynolds’ work, and if anything even more painterly in her treatment of the clothing – but only in her portraits, not in her history painting.
Just two years before she had to flee the revolution, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Rosalba Carriera’s heir, painted The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien (1787). The painterly pink highlights on the blue dress of the woman at the left contrast with more controlled stripes of the other woman’s dress.
Anne Hollander (2002), Fabric of Vision, Dress and Drapery in Painting, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 907 9.