The child on the left rests her hand atop the head of the other, working her fingers gently through smooth hair like her own into the scalp. Her expression is inspectorial, proprietary – and openly so. The other gazes out at us – nonplussed, plotting. You know without being told that these two could have but one relation to each other: they are sisters. It is your sister, and only your sister, whom you may handle like this in the expectation she will take you back.
These are the Gainsborough girls, Mary and Margaret, as painted by their father, Thomas, in 1758. The double portraits Thomas Gainsborough left of Mary and Margaret, from early childhood through their late twenties – at which point he died, or surely he would have gone on painting his daughters – are the most penetrating exploration of the theme of two sisters that art has to show us. As well they might be, for it was just once that a great genius of English painting begat two nervous girls close in age, and trained his eye upon them for over a quarter of a century, recording their dominance play, their tremendous naturalness with each other – even when sisters pose, there is no posing – and, their striking individuation in late girlhood.
For a long time, the Gainsborough girls were a sisterhood, a separate state within portraiture involving at least two girls, usually more. But the Gainsborough girls, growing up in the Enlightenment, are relatively modern. The oldest sisterhoods in classical Western art are the Muses and the Graces – god-spawned and numerous enough to have been born in litters. In Baldassare Peruzzi’s depiction of the Muses in the Pitti Palace in Florence, labels are needed to tell the nine apart. (Apollo, brawnier by a bit and baring a breast, is among them in this representation.)
Except for the callipygian aspect of the one, Raphael’s Three Graces at the Musee Conde in Chantilly are streamlined into a unit. If the Muses exist to inspire men – to lyric poetry, astronomy, comedy and the like — then you wouldn’t know them one from another by their physiognomies. Neither can the Grace who embodies mirth be told from the beautiful one, or the charming one.
Sisterhood on the Marriage Market
Almost one hundred years later, in a composition alluding to Sir Joshua's great painting, John Everett Millais painted a wealthy burgher’s daughters, Elizabeth, Mary and Diana Armstrong. Elizabeth will mind her cards, Diana will be sly and sad, but Mary will be looking to cheat on you — and not at cards. (Pop them up!)
Close to the turn of the 20th century, John Singer Sargent's majestically campy Wyndham girls make their sisterly point. “It's about me,” the one in the center seems to have concluded, and the wistful, slightly older two who flank her assent to that. They are neurasthenic, rich but not fun. And probably not so biddable, either. If you must marry into this set-up, it should be obvious the healthy animal is the horse worth breaking. (Pop them up!)
In the years leading up to 9/11, when important hair was making a brief comeback, we had the Miller girls, the three blonded daughters of the Duty Free Shopping billionaire, posed among goods and chattel in a way Sargent would recognize, even if he did stop short of it. They made brilliant marriages, only one of which has since come apart. Nifty, if the one shown upside down is the one who divorced — but I don't know that it's she. Portraits like these announce a bloodline’s potential more than they investigate individual psychology. And a viewer could be forgiven his or her livestock thoughts, for such thoughts are openly solicited by the genre.
Sisterhood and the Double Portrait
The double portrait has a long history — as long as portraiture itself, going back to an earlier era, even, than the invention of dialogue in Greek drama. One signal occasion for it is the wedding, the affianced couple represented with hugely symbolic gestures and objects. Another is the state of maternity — one woman with her child, in infancy or at any later time. In such an image, one sees the deepest and most complex, but also the most hopeful human relationship. We continue, it tells us, we have a future.
Double portraits of sisters are thin on the ground before the Early Modern era, one raging exception being the School of Fontainebleau portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrees, the mistress of Henri IV, and her sister, the Duchesse de Villars, painted in 1594.
The sisters are in their bath, and it is the royal mistress whose nipple is being pinched. Why? She is pregnant with the child of the King of France. Given the characteristically foxy Fontainebleau expressions on the faces of the two — expressions which make all their wearers look excited to be tucking into something that is at least a pheasant — much has been made of this charming painting. Scholars have located it in a tradition of “female couple” representations, such as one sees on the Shakespearean stage or in the great tribade canvases of Courbet. Oh, everything comes heterosexually right in the end, but meanwhile there's a lot of code, and some desperately needed titillation for career academics.
I see this painting as less complex. The Duchesse de Villars, the brunette on the left, is mighty pleased to be consolidating her position at court by becoming the aunt of a royal bastard. It's almost as good as becoming the mother of one. Both sisters will advance themselves and their families in ways that are too laden with perks and otherwise too scrumptious even to take in. You might well desire to pinch the nipple of anyone who did all that for you. You might well look like the cat who'd got the cream. The fabled male stare may pick out numerous items in this scene that are a bit kinky. But, honestly — those guys have no idea.
Or is it me? I have a very long history of looking at double portraits of sisters. And I have a sister who likes to look at them with me.
One Dances, the Other Watches
If you are dressed in shimmering gold, receiving floral tributes from a winged boy, you can be said to overshadow your sister, the more so if your gaze is direct and hers lowered, landing about on your pearls (never mind that her own are just as good.) We know which sister is the watcher here.
But was it like this for Dorothy and Elizabeth every day? Maybe not. My sister and I, as children, would have pored over this portrait and tried to figure out what was really going on. The raised hand of Dorothy would have spoken volumes to us. Yes, she's merely fussing at her dull taupe wrap, exposing a section of poitrine, but what if you did that while your sister was getting perhaps more than her due? Would it be meaningless? I'll bet not. Because what sisters in double portraits do with their hands is very, very important.
My sister and I had an art-filled childhood, and have had years of adult involvement with the same paintings. I do not remember the day or the year we started looking at portraits of two sisters with special attention to their hands. I do not remember the image that prompted the idea, or which one of us first had it. It was probably a painting in an art book — a painting like this one.
These are Mary and Catherine Horneck, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They are lovely and affectionate, and surely rivalrous, for they are sisters, and rivalry comes with the dinner. You just don't want to let it run away with you, that's all.
But maybe it was running away with the Horneck sisters. They could be doing anything, really, in this painting — you see only one hand out of four. Mary and Catherine could even be gut-stabbing each other. They could be knifer-sisters. Yes, they could be knifers. It became a code word for my sister and me, and we still use it. There are sororal double portraits that are just too saccharine, and you know they are knifers. We know it, anyway. There are portraits of sisters who are knifers even if they are sitting on their hands.
Not all sisters in double portraits have that potential. Some sisters are just too weird to be knifers. These, for instance — a seemingly dual being, whose names are not known to us, by Rembrandt Peale.
Other sisters look like a pairing of a knifer with a girl too inert to be one, like the Napoleonic nieces, Zenaide and Charlotte Bonaparte, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1821. Interestingly, you can see both the hands of Zenaide, the more complex-looking sister, so it's impossible to tell a knifer from appearances alone. It takes finer feeling, and — probably — a sister of your own to talk it over with.
Still other sisters are just too cheesed off even to bother being knifers. These two, by James Tissot, are equally afflicted by sour dispositions, but they're not making things more interesting for each other. Sometimes, it's not really a good idea to be painted.
Like Two o' Clock and Four o' Clock
Painters of double portraits of sisters are under pressure to meet several big challenges to good composition, as well as to the psychology of representing two beings identical in gender and station, and close in age, appearance and possibly temperament. Sisters can be like two o' clock and four o' clock — different, but not different enough to make one linger over it. There's the problem of too much symmetry, which works against a dynamic composition, and there are various approaches to the solution.
Some portraitists actually play up similarities in dress and appearance, the better to individuate sisters through physiognomy and the suggestion of story. In 1843, Theodore Chasseriau painted his own two sisters, dressed identically. It's a powerful statement about intimacy, and about being in the world as a sisterhood. The Chasseriau sisters bring a tremendous sense of shared perspective, quiet understanding and continuous dialogue to the viewer. They would be lost without each other, so deeply attached are they.
Please note, you can see four hands, but you cannot see, exactly, what — if anything — the right hand of the sister on the left is doing under her shawl. This is provocative to viewers like me and my sister, and increases the interest of a double portrait no end. The full or partial hiddenness of hands in portraiture is a complex language, suggesting composure (hands folded in lap), stealth (hands behind back), even informality (hands in pockets). And much more.
I learned very early that at dinner in France they consider it rude to position your hands below the edge of the dining table — those hands could be doing anything down there! This may have fed into my interest in seeing hands in portraits of sisters — a sign that nothing nefarious was going on. That hands are free to touch, to console, to play with hair.
But this doesn't mean you aren't a knifer — that I can see your hands, and they grasp no knife. For my sister and me, it became purely symbolic. Just as there are knifers without sisters, there are knifers without knives. If a certain degree of complexity is present in the image, if it speaks not only of habituation and similarity, but of intense connectedness and the love that weathers battles, then the portrait implies that the sisters are knifers.
Love comes with ambiguity, or it is mere worship, as all the greatest portraitists are able to show. The wedding portraits that are moving are those that show us the couple is well aware of the gravity of the step they are taking, that they are not locked into position for perpetual adoration like saints grimacing in hyperdulia. The double portraits of sisters that compel us manage to communicate the cost of lifelong love. I know, the sisters seem to murmur to one another — and I love you anyway.
The Gainsborough Girls
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough were born to an unusual couple, and were the second and third daughters of that union. An elder daughter, the original Mary, died in infancy. It was not in those days odd or unlucky to name a child after one who had died. Their mother was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat. The two hundred pounds a year that she had from that quarter were sufficient to make the little family comfortable, and to grant Thomas Gainsborough as much artistic freedom as he could use.
One can see at a glance the girls are dressed rather finely for the daughters of a painter — a hint of the ambiguous social status that would overtake them as adults.
Margaret wants to chase a butterfly, Mary wants to restrain her — beguiled as she is by the butterfly herself. It is nothing if not big-sisterly to think how to keep someone barely younger than you safe — even from butterflies. Margaret is young enough to desire and reach in one moment, Mary old enough to desire and pull back. In a slightly later oil sketch, they look a bit tired — they've finished playing, their hair is mussed, they are finding refuge in one another.
If you look very closely, you can see a spectral cat in Margaret's lap, with a facial cast that suggests predation. Perhaps the cat was the knifer here? It was a presence in the sketch that was either never developed or wiped away — a painter of genius knows when he has done enough, and some paintings, like some lives, are done before they are finished.
As the girls grew older, they began to study music and drawing, like young ladies of quality. Margaret is coming to know her profile is her best angle, the high-bridged nose and the length of neck best set off that way. You can see a faint squint in Mary's eye, and now that you see it, you can find it in the earlier portraits too, and in the later ones. It is with a not quite level gaze that she meets the world, and most interesting to see how her father minimized this flaw by turning her head a certain way, and modeling her nose to draw attention away from it. Here as elsewhere, Margaret has very beautiful hands, and Mary's are more ordinary. The girls are growing up, drawing away from one another, occupying minds and hands with new things.
They reached the marrying years in Bath, a resort town where aristocrats and well-heeled commoners made a splendid clientele for their father. And then it kicked in — that the Gainsborough girls could not so easily be placed. Their father was a dazzling and successful painter, but — a painter. Their mother had made the most baffling contribution of all — refinement but no pedigree. And the sisters were refined, educated far above their station, with plenty of exposure to artists, musicians and writers. It could hardly have been worse, and they were downright unmarriageable.
The fury of this condition told on them, as their last appearance in a double portrait shows.
They're all grown up, aren't they? Margaret has arrived at a rather equine wryness, and Mary is very grave indeed. The dog in the picture — pointing, vigilant — may have been Gainsborough's way of representing himself, for he signed the dog's name to the frequent notes of apology he wrote to his wife. What's he sorry for here? That he would soon be gone from their lives, perhaps. And, not long afterwards, he died.
But not before he saw one of his unmarriageable daughters marry the only kind of man available to such a girl — the wrong kind. Mary became Mrs. Johann Christian Fischer, the wife of an acclaimed and much older German oboist. Margaret, learning perhaps by example, never married. There were two final portraits, single ones. Mary, in all her finery, is beset by ungovernably low spirits. Margaret, bare-headed inside her oval cartouche, is resigned and self-protective, her hand grasping her wrap.
Their story ends in the 1820s — almost fifty years after these last paintings were done. Mary cut out on Mr. Fischer, or was sent back by him — it's not entirely clear which. But their parting did not restore her, for she went mad, they say, and stayed that way. Margaret became a known eccentric — but one hears that kind of thing about unmarriageable women who do not marry.
You don't see it the first time you look, but someone once tried to sunder the the Gainsborough girls, when they were little knifers pulling hair. Here they are again.
They have been successfully reconnected, and one can only guess that whoever cut their portrait in half was displeased by such a truthful and unconventional representation of sisterhood. Or displeased by their sister, and didn't want any double portraits around. There was a knifer, indeed. But the wound to the painting is healed, the sisters rejoined, forever in that moment of recognition like no other.