“Gainsborough’s Family Album” at the Princeton University Art Museum threatens to be sentimental. One imagines gallery after gallery of milk-white, pink-cheeked little children dressed in Wedgwood-colored frocks, posed in elegant 18th-century interiors or the verdant English countryside.

And there is, to be fair, a bit of that here. Indeed, the heart of the show is a series of paintings that Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) made of his daughters Mary and Margaret.

We see them as little girls playing with a cat that their father scarcely bothered to paint. We see them, in a panel that was broken up and subsequently pieced back together, with Mary fixing her younger sister’s hair.

Later, we see them with art materials, as they enact their father’s wishes that they learn to draw and paint landscapes. Finally, we see them in a full-length formal portrait that draws attention to their devotion to each other, even as it shows them as fashionable and marriageable young women.

This sequence of paintings is very much a proud father’s observation and documentation of his daughters, though it surely reflects his point of view rather than theirs. The two daughters did remain close and devoted to each other through life, though Mary’s mental illness obliged her younger sister to take on the role of protector, a reversal of the way their father showed them.

“Gainsborough’s Family Album” was organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery and curated by David H. Solkin. It includes loans from top international museums and private collections, and it provides a new way of looking at one of England’s best-loved and most familiar artists.

It shows us that family is about more than just the heart. It is also about making a living. It is about secrets and long-festering hurts. It is a place of learning, and a kind of advertisement for the patriarch. Family is a vessel in which we try to ride out life’s disappointments.

Thomas Gainsborough’s "Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew" (circa 1770–75), at the Princeton University Art Museum
© Tate, London, 2019
Thomas Gainsborough’s "Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew" (circa 1770–75), at the Princeton University Art Museum

Though artists throughout history dragooned family members into modeling for their works, Gainsborough seems to have been the first to paint so many pictures of family members, including his ne’er-do-well brother, a cousin’s mother-in-law, and a couple of pairs of dogs.

In fact, Gainsborough’s most famous painting, Blue Boy, which is not in this show, might also be an example from the family album, as many believe the model for it was Gainsborough’s nephew, apprentice, and designated successor in his business, Gainsborough Dupont.

There are several pictures in the show known to be Dupont, including one from 1773 in which he is wearing the same blue suit, which seems to have been a costume that Gainsborough kept in his studio. Tradition has it that Gainsborough painted this work in only an hour, in a fit of industry and inspiration that a friend said resulted in something “more like the work of God than of man.” It is more engaging than the famed Blue Boy because of its air of spontaneity.

Most of Gainsborough’s family pictures seem to have been painted briskly, without any real effort to give them the lush backgrounds and textures seen in the portraits for which Gainsborough was paid.

Thomas Gainsborough’s "Tristram and Fox" (circa 1775–85), at the Princeton University Art Museum.
© Tate, London 2019
Thomas Gainsborough’s "Tristram and Fox" (circa 1775–85), at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Much of what is best about Gainsborough is the liveliness of his line that seems to energize his potentially static portraits. When painting his family, he concentrated on their faces and expressions and didn’t need to worry about making them look rich and successful, as his paying clients demanded.

Thus, these hastier, less-finished pictures are probably more accessible to contemporary audiences than the artist’s formal paintings of the eminent. Indeed, one can see, here and there in his quick, almost scribbly line, impressionism lurking at the edges.

Gainsborough himself professed to be bored by doing formal portraits, and he aspired to be an artist of landscapes, which were considered at the time to be a lower-class, less valuable kind of art. He was not able to make a living at it.

The face that appears most in the show is that of Gainsborough’s wife, Margaret. In an early family scene, painted when the artist was a young, provincial unknown, Gainsborough and Margaret are posed in a landscape with their first daughter, an earlier Mary, who died in infancy. There is something almost forlorn about the image. One senses Gainsborough had far to go as an artist and as head of a family.

Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of a duke, which seems to have given her a certain grandiosity, along with a substantial annuity that helped sustain the family in Gainsborough’s earliest years as a painter. She seems to have taken the lead in marketing and managing her husband’s career. She determined that only as a portrait painter would he be able to sustain and enrich his family, and she took care of all the receipts from that business.

Thomas Gainsborough’s Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife (circa 1777), at the Princeton University Art Museum
The Courtauld Gallery, London
Thomas Gainsborough’s Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife (circa 1777), at the Princeton University Art Museum

They also agreed that Gainsborough could paint landscapes in his spare time and keep the receipts from those sales. Among the uses to which he put this income was paying prostitutes. The marriage was a business and personal partnership that apparently had a lot of tensions. Margaret demanded practicality from her husband, while also aspiring — once his career got under way — to live at the most fashionable possible addresses as though she were a recognized member of the nobility.

Solkin finds hints of these tensions in a drawing of the couple’s dogs — though the roles are reversed. His dog appears foxlike and aggressive, like Margaret, while hers is a benign shepherd type.

Still, the paintings Gainsborough made of his wife show no trace of ill will, but rather a profoundly respectful love. The show’s masterpiece, I think, is the 1777 portrait, on loan from London’s Courtauld Gallery, that may have been done to celebrate her 50th birthday. She looks directly at the viewer, her head emerging from a black mantilla that highlights her fair face and graying hair.

Her pose is based on a classical sculpture associated with modesty — though she appears to be a force to be reckoned with. The pose is also associated with Juno, wife of the chief Roman god, Jupiter. That was another power couple that had its difficulties.

But what you remember from the painting is her direct, serious, intelligent gaze into the eyes of her husband who is painting her. It is a mutual recognition of their partnership, their life together, of being family.


Gainsborough’s Family Album

Through June 9 at Princeton University Art Museum, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (until 9 p.m. Thursday), noon-5 p.m. Sunday, free, 609-258-3788, artmuseum.princeton.edu