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Portraits of Couples

The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant, in the Honeysuckle Bower, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609, oil on canvas, 178 x 136.5cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Although I have painted husbands and wives separately, I have yet to paint a portrait of a husband and wife together. I looked at some double portraits of the Old Masters only to realise that there are fewer than I had expected. Above is a self portrait by Rubens with his first wife, Isabella Brant. The pose is classical, with the husband on the wife’s right. They hold each other’s right hand symbolising their marriage, and sit under a honeysuckle representing love. It is a touching portrait. All the same, I was troubled by the orange hose which clashes with just about everything else in the picture, but that may simply reflect Rubens’ taste for riotous socks than any conscious decision of his to add the colour to the picture.

Wedding portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa and Beatrix van der Laan, c 1622, Frans Hals, oil on canvas, 140 x 166.5cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This wedding portrait by Hals is also heavy with symbolism for marriage (the ivy and the garden). The pose is classical with the wife sitting on her husband’s left, like the Rubens above. There are, however, a few original ingredients to this picture. Firstly, the attitudes which denote an easy-going understanding and time-worn amused tolerance on both sides – the husband sits back with a wry look in his eyes but his hand on his heart. The wife takes the centre ground and, smiling, places an arm on her husband’s shoulder. She appears to lay claim to him but in a rather playful way. Passion in this marriage appears to be already in the past but an honest, trusting intimacy reigns.

Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze ,1788. Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Above is a portrait of Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze by David. Although the painting style is classical (actually neo-classical) the pose is not. David places the wife standing behind her husband with her arm on his shoulder. The seated Lavoisier looks over his shoulder at her thus adding to her consequence. Her central figure dominates the scene. Lavoisier appears to be acknowledging meekly her rather firmly suggested corrections to his notes.

General Francis Dundas and Eliza Cumming, Mrs Francis Dundas ( 1755 – 1824 ) Sir Henry Raeburn. (Collection at Aniston House, Midlothian)

Yet again, the couple here is placed in the classical way with the wife seated to her husband’s left. This time however, Raeburn gives us a more confrontational pose. They are playing chess and the general watches ruefully as his wife upstages him and takes his queen. Like Lavoisier, General Dundas appears to have married a very clever wife.

This portrait (right) was originally to be of Mrs I N Stokes alone but Sargent thought the better of that idea when he saw Mrs Stokes come in to his studio flushed after a brisk walk wearing her boater, dark blue jacket and long white skirt. He placed her husband in the background instead of a Great Dane on whose head Mrs Stokes was to have placed her hand (the dog appears not to have been available at the time) – probably an improvement.

This portrait (below) by Cecilia Beaux is of the parents of Mr I N Stokes painted just a year or so after Sargent’s above. There is a definite nod to the earlier portrait in terms of composition. What this  portrait loses in liveliness and dynamism to Sargent’s, it gains in gentleness and grace. I have noticed that in nearly all the portraits I have chosen, the wives are placed to the left of their husbands but they generally come centre stage and to the fore. Putting myself in the husbands’ shoes I must admit that the pose does feel right to me. I do not think my wife would mind being centre stage either.

Mr and Mrs Anson Phelps Stokes, 1898, oil on canvas, 183 x 101cm, Cecilia Beaux, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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