Representation can be defined in a variety of ways. In a general sense, it is the straightforward description of something; in a more focused discussion, such as art, it is the symbolic reconstruction of life (or an aspect within). In Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750), however, both definitions apply to the content of the painting. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to clarify the ways in which Gainsborough achieves this—how he represents life both directly and metaphorically in Mr and Mrs Andrews.
On the surface, Mr and Mrs Andrews is a painting of a couple and their property. In the title we are provided with the identity of the couple: Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. By simply observing the scene, it is evident that Mr. and Mrs. Andrews collectively own a gun, a dog, clothing, and land.
What is not blatantly evident in the scenario can be deduced from a more abstract analysis of the painting. Mr. Andrews’ stature, gun, and general brazen suggest that the aforementioned property is not collectively owned by the couple, but rather singularly so by the husband. Accordingly, it can be assessed that Mrs. Andrews too is included in her husband’s property.
With this analysis in mind, Mr and Mrs Andrews begins to open itself up as an expression of society and class in eighteenth century life. With deep speculation, the observer might ponder the maintenance of the family’s abundant land—surely Mr. and Mrs. Andrews do not preserve their fields alone. No, it is more likely that they have employed workers of a lower class. In similar attention to detail, Mrs. Andrews apparently had an object in her lap before Gainsborough finalized the painting. Perhaps his suggestion is that Mrs. Andrews really owns nothing at all—perhaps Mr. Andrews took whatever she had for his own.
In this light, Mr and Mrs Andrews appears to be a criticism of the wealthy lifestyle during eighteenth century England. The same painting, however, can be assessed as just a portrait of a couple. In that diversity of interpretation lays the nature of representation: it is the subjective recreation of life. Whether this implies a seemingly straightforward depiction or a masked figurative message is often up to the observer. In other words, representation is not limited by a particular control—such as an author’s intention, for example—but is an expansive form of thought capable of multiple implications. This definition is in itself embodied by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews—the tangible content and the discernable suggestions of the painting coincide to influence a variety of understandings, all unified under one term: representation.
Written in 2012 for an art history course while studying abroad in London, UK.