It’s been some years now since I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in London and seeing Thomas Gainsborough’s The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly.
Perhaps I’ve just been unlucky. Although I visit the gallery frequently to enjoy the treasures of one of the world’s greatest collections of Western Art, my favourite painting has been missing, being lent or cleaned or whatever.
Turner, Picasso, Rembrandt, there are many artists that rank higher in my enthusiasm than Gainsborough. But there is no single painting I love more than his one that heads this post.
I came to it only when I had become a parent myself. The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly was painted around 1756 making Mary five and her sister Margaret three.
The artist reveals more than the love he holds for his children. He has captured a moment in what he knows will be their all too fleeting childhood.
Margaret is impetuous reaching for the butterfly – itself one of nature’s loveliest and most fragile creatures – but her sister is already more serious and contemplative.
Although the children are bathed in sunlight, the woodland from which they emerge could become threatening as the clouds darken.
Mary had been given the name of the daughter Gainsborough had lost in infancy and this poignancy seems reflected in how tenderly the girls hold hands.
With the intelligence and inquisitiveness in their eyes, it comes as no surprise to learn that Gainsborough was ambitious for his daughters and when they were older trained them in the family business.
Sad then they should have “difficult lives”. But down through the centuries, it is clear they had the love of a father who adored them.