Know Your Chapeau: Mrs. Siddons

7:00 AM

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Siddons, 1785

Considering the multitude of textures and color palettes in Gainsborough’s Mrs. Siddons, an observer has no reason to focus on the subject’s black chapeau, yet it draws the eye more effectively than any other element of the work. Gainsborough applies incredible richness in the red backdrop, and he designs textures that appear as real as an actual fur coat and capture the drama of a tragic actress like Sarah Siddons. His wholly different patterns and contrasting colors fill the work in a way that adds dignified intimacy without chaos or claustrophobia.

Gainsborough captures the softness of this renowned tragedian’s face with incredible care, and he most likely spent more time on this portion of the painting than any other. After weeks of effort on her proboscis alone, he exclaimed, “Confound the nose, there's no end to it!”

What about this hat, though? The striking black as well as its size and shape repeatedly steal attention away from the masterful beauty of the rest of the painting. Since this hat lacks the ornate texture of every other material in the portrait, it stands out even more than it would just by virtue of its enormity. The blackness has a peculiar effect, because this color ordinarily serves to define the brighter hues around it, but, in this case, it contrasts with every other part of the painting and creates a sort of void that provokes thought and further consideration of the work. So, well done, Gainsborough. By creating a hat, you keep people’s attention long enough for them to see the excellence of this painting.

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