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Seen in a new light

The Huntington brings a 19th century sensibility to its installation of Gainsborough's `Cottage Door.'

April 24, 2006|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

"THE Cottage Door" by Thomas Gainsborough is considered one of the most significant paintings belonging to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and is always on display. Until recently, that meant it hung on the well-lighted walls of the main portrait gallery among such familiar favorites as "Pinkie" and "The Blue Boy." Now, as the focus of the exhibition "Sensation & Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's 'Cottage Door,' " it hangs alone in a dimly lighted tent.

The 1780 painting of a peasant woman and her multitude of children at the threshold of their modest, woods-enshrouded home is installed, according to Shelley Bennett, the Huntington's curator of British and European art, "the way Gainsborough would have wanted it and how an early 19th century viewer would have seen it. You can't see every detail. The mood is what prevails."

The tent room re-creates a space designed especially for the painting in 1818 by its owner at the time, Sir John Leicester. Regarding it as the centerpiece of his collection of British painting (it was also the costliest), Leicester devoted a stage to "Cottage Door" upon which it could stand alone.

The six-sided tent room at the Huntington, 16 feet in diameter, has crimson fabric walls and a blue-and-white striped canvas roof. There are a few low, cushioned benches inside, inviting extended contemplation of the painting, which hangs between a pair of standing lamps meant to mimic period gaslight. Gilt frame mirrors hang on each of the other fabric walls.

Everything about the shrine-like room intensifies the viewer's encounter with the painting, including the low height at which the nearly 5- by 4-foot work hangs. Facing the painting, one feels intimately enveloped.

Gainsborough's studio methods were unorthodox, the stuff of legend, and the way he created his work overlapped with how he wanted it experienced. According to his contemporaries, Gainsborough (1727-88) preferred to paint by candlelight. Sometimes he used brushes with handles 6 feet long, so he could stand at the same distance as a viewer might and gauge the coherence of his brushstrokes accordingly.

The tent room is one of several aspects of the "Sensation & Sensibility" show, organized in collaboration with the Yale Center for British Art, that prompt viewers to be alert not just to what they're seeing but how they're seeing.

"Viewing experiences are not neutral," says Ann Bermingham, UC Santa Barbara professor of the history of art and architecture and guest curator of the exhibition. "They're highly charged and can be manipulated. The exhibition is really looking at viewing as a culturally determined thing. The kinds of experiences you bring to a work of art are going to impact the experience you get out of it."

Eighteenth century viewers would see paintings such as "The Cottage Door," which represented the rural poor with a new degree of respect, through the lens of sensibility, Bermingham says.

"Perhaps the closest modern equivalent would be sympathy or compassion. Sensibility was really about asking you to put yourself in the place of another and to feel what you might feel if you were in their situation. English moral philosophers like [John] Locke or [Adam] Smith believed that this process of feeling for another person was really one of the foundations for a moral life, and that it acted like a glue that held society together."

Viewers in Gainsborough's day would also bring to the experience of his work a new taste for visual spectacle. Transparencies were a popular form of home entertainment in the late 18th century, and Gainsborough contributed to the craze. He painted a series of landscapes on glass and built a special viewing box for them. Candles illuminate the paintings from behind and endow the scenes with inner luminosity. The Huntington exhibition includes facsimiles of the paintings, a replica of Gainsborough's "showbox" and other period examples of artists' explorations in dramatic lighting effects.

The public sensation that most catalyzed Gainsborough was the Eidophusikon, a theatrical phenomenon developed by his friend the set designer Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. The Eidophusikon, a precursor to the illusionism of dioramas and ultimately, motion pictures, debuted in London in 1781.

Audiences sat as they do now before a screen, watching dramas elapse within the confines of a rectangular, illusionistic space. The Eidophusikon's stage measured 4 feet high and 7 feet wide, and receded 8 feet in depth. Lighting, music and sound conjured the effects of weather and atmosphere upon the scenic paintings within. Gainsborough was a regular, Bermingham says.

"He went back night after night and went backstage to see how it all worked and to help. One night there was a thunderstorm outside and part of the performance evoked a thunderstorm. Gainsborough was running outside and back in to compare them and called back to De Loutherbourg, 'Ours is better!' "

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