National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: British Conversation Pieces and Portraits of the 1700s
Overview

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Eighteenth-century British painters used the word “conversation” to describe informal group portraits as well as imaginary views of daily life, now called genre scenes. In portraiture, conversation pieces referred to pictures commissioned by families or friends to portray them sharing common activities such as hunts, meals, or musical parties.

The inclusion of several figures “conversing” in familiar settings tends to make conversation pieces appear intricate and, therefore, small in scale. However, these intimate moods could be rendered in actual dimensions that are huge. Several full-length group portraits in the collection of the National Gallery of Art combine the charm of small conversation pieces with the formality of life-size likenesses in the Grand Manner.

Conversation pieces came into fashion during the 1720s, largely due to the influence of William Hogarth, Britain’s first native-born painter of international stature. Significantly, they arose at the same time as a new literary development, the novel. Not until the later 1700s did the British innovations of conversation pictures and fictional novels become common in other Western nations.

A large new middle class emerged as Britain’s colonial empire expanded and its Industrial Revolution began. Socially spurned by the aristocracy, these wealthy merchants, industrialists, and colonial landowners developed their own more natural and casual manners that made perfect themes to enliven both novels and group portraits.

Conversation pieces and novels, by fictionally portraying situations from real life, differ from the allegorical portraits and epic poetry preferred by the nobility. Prosperous middle-class people who normally commissioned conversation pieces are similar to the characters who populate such novels as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, A Foundling, or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Timeline of Events in Georgian Britain: 1714-1830

1714After Queen Anne dies without heirs, four German-descended kings named “George” rule Britain until 1830
1720Daniel Defoe publishes Robinson Crusoe
1726Jonathan Swift publishes Gulliver’s Travels
1728John Gay premieres The Beggar's Opera
1732Benjamin Franklin prints first Poor Richard’s Almanac in colonial Philadelphia
1742George Frederick Handel premieres Messiah
1749Henry Fielding publishes Tom Jones
1753 William Hogarth writes and illustrates aesthetic treatise, The Analysis of Beauty
1760 Benjamin West, first American artist to work abroad, sails to Rome
1769 Joshua Reynolds, as founding president, opens the Royal Academy of Art, London
Patents awarded for James Watt’s steam engine and Richard Arkwright’s yarn-spinning frame
1774 Thomas Gainsborough moves his studio from Bath to London
1776Declaration of Independence by thirteen American colonies
1777Richard Brinsley Sheridan premieres comedy The School for Scandal
1778Captain James Cook names Hawaiian islands after the Earl of Sandwich
1788Sydney, Australia, founded as a penal colony
1792West elected Royal Academy’s second president when Reynolds dies
1796Edward Jenner inoculates against smallpox
1807 William Turner elected Royal Academy’s professor of perspective
1814In War of 1812, British burn Washington, D.C.
1815Duke of Wellington defeats Napoleon at Battle of Waterloo, Belgium
1818Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein
1819John Keats equates truth and beauty in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
1820 Thomas Lawrence elected Royal Academy’s president when West dies
1825World’s first passenger railroad opens in England


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