Thomas Hudson, England
126 in. x 174 in.
Long-term loan from the Berger Collection, TL-17968
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Born in southwest England, Thomas Hudson was one of the most important portrait painters in England in the mid-1700s. During his lifetime, Hudson painted at least four hundred portraits, about eighty of which were turned into engravings. Engraving was a historically important method of commercial reproduction; the duplication of Hudson’s paintings demonstrates the extent of their popularity. Hudson moved to London in the late 1720s, where he later (1740s) became a member of a group of artists who promoted the first public space for artists to exhibit their work, the Foundling Hospital in London. During Hudson’s painting career, a new style of art emerged in France, called Rococo. The style was characterized by luxury, grace, playfulness, and lightness. Rococo motifs were focused on the carefree aristocratic life. The lighter colors seen in Hudson’s paintings are cheerful and optimistic, and convey feelings of a soft, harmonious, ambient light.
What Inspired It
Dated about 1742, this painting may have been commissioned to celebrate the Radcliffe family’s purchase of a splendid new home near Plymouth, England. The Radcliffe Family is a “conversation piece,” a type of informal portrait representing a group of people engaged in social discourse – not talking necessarily, but engaged with one another if only by virtue of their knowing each other. Descendents of the family pictured could look back at this painting and converse about their elite ancestors. For a brief moment in the 1730s the conversation piece was popular among noble and even royal patrons. It eventually became the almost exclusive property of the gentry, people of good breeding or high social status who ranked just below the nobility. Walter Radcliffe and his wife Admonition were both members of the gentry. They had nine children, all featured in the painting. The children, from left to right, are: Mary, Jane, Admonition (playing with the dog), John (touching Admonition’s shoulder), Anne Grace, William (in his mother’s lap), Walter, Jasper, and Joanna.
The surface on which the painting was made is actually sixteen separate pieces of canvas fitted together and glued onto another material. Thomas Hudson was required to make the painting in this way because canvas was not produced in such large pieces at the time. Some scholars think that Hudson sketched the overall composition and then had sittings with only a few of the family members at a time at their home in Devonshire. Back in his studio in London, he worked on the hands and faces. There he employed a drapery painter to do the rest—drapery, background, and clothes.
The family is posed in an almost triangle arrangement, with the father at the top showing his importance in the family hierarchy. All of the family members look directly at the viewer except for one boy, one girl, and the dog.
There are a number of details that suggest the people who live in this house are very important—the luxurious tasseled curtain; the elaborate garden pedestal and urn on the right; the Turkish carpet that the family is positioned on, which would have been quite exotic for the time; and the Ionic pilasters (flat, rectangular forms based on round columns, used as an ornamental motif). Only a socially prominent family would have had and/or valued these objects.
The accepted costume for men in the early 1740s included a wig, breeches, a waistcoat, and a coat. Mr. Radcliffe conforms perfectly to the image of a country gentleman at ease.
In this painting, all of the women’s dresses conform to the prevailing style: ankle- or floor-length skirts, elbow-length sleeves, a squared neckline, and, in Anne Grace’s case (directly to the left of Mr. Radcliffe), a short train. The girl’s caps are adorned with a variety of decorations such as tulips, pink and blue ribbons, flowers, ostrich feathers, and green leaves.
During the 1700s, boys and girls alike wore dresses until five or six years old. As they got older, boys were dressed in miniature versions of their father's clothes. Look at the way Jasper, who carries a drum, is dressed compared to his brother, Walter, who is handing a piece of fruit to the baby. Two of the four boys are wearing dresses and they all hold a piece of fruit.
The lace and shiny fabrics were painted with loose brushstrokes that are easy to see. Up close they appear rough, but at a distance they magically create the look of fabric and lace. The exquisite silk of the girls’ dresses was painted by Joseph van Aken [AH-kin], one of the drapery painters employed by Hudson.
A highlight is an area or a spot in a drawing, painting, or photograph that is strongly illuminated. In this painting, highlights are represented by a dab of white or light-colored paint.
Look for glints of light on the tips of noses, in the eyes, and on the lips of the figures. Hudson’s placement of these glints and his confident brushstrokes mark him as a master. These glints and brushstrokes help to bring the figures to life.