The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London
He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.
He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.
Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.
Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.
I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.
I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.
I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.
When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?
Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.
The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.
One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago
Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.
We chase the butterfly.