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Two sisters in a landscape

Two sisters in a landscape


English School

c. 1780

Oil on canvas

62.2 x 74.7 cm (canvas), 76 x 89 cm (frame)

Higher res images available on request

This imagined scene of two sisters in a landscape draws on several of the artistic and cultural currents of the eighteenth century: conversation pieces, the high society taste for country life, and the enjoyment of the frissons of danger and sublime nature. The sisters draw close to each other, looking warily out of the picture at something, or someone, out of our sight. Their little dog, symbolic of fidelity, senses danger and barks at the intruder to protect his mistresses. This unknown danger creates an unfinished narrative and lends it a tingle of excitement (perhaps even erotic to some viewers), while in the distance, the mountainous landscape echoes the thrill of the sublime.   


This painting is a ‘conversation piece’, in which small-sized full length figures are grouped or interact with each other in an interior or landscape setting. Conversation pieces were often portraits of families or groups of friends, but the genre also encompassed imaginary figures and scenes, or a blend of the real and the imagined. It is not known whether this painting is a double portrait, or a purely imaginary scene, but it is likely to be the former. However, the scene in which they are depicted is certainly imaginary.


The conversation piece was introduced to England by Philip Mercier in the 1720s, who drew on his familiarity with Antoine Watteau’s fêtes galantes to create group portraits of genteel families in parkland settings. However, he also produced imaginative narratives such as Lovers in a Park (c. 1727, Syon House), which shares the narrative aspect of Two sisters in a landscape. Other leading practitioners of the conversation piece included Arthur Devis and Johan Zoffany, and the genre continued to enjoy popularity throughout the eighteenth century.  


One characteristic of the conversation piece was its representation of contemporary dress, manners and culture. This contrasted with the ‘grand manner’ portraiture of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who took care to exclude the temporal world from his portraits by posing his female sitters in an imagined costume of drapery rather than contemporary clothing, since the fashions would quickly appear outdated. The two sisters in our painting wear contemporary clothes, which along with the hairstyles can be pinpointed to around 1780. They wear the silk dresses of fashionable young ladies, but they have been ‘countrified’ in keeping with the imagined narrative, with shortened skirts and aprons. It is reminiscent of the fashion of Marie Antoinette and the ladies of the French court for playing the shepherdess and dairymaid.


Another contemporary cultural current runs through this scene. In most conversation pieces, painted earlier in the eighteenth century, the groups of figures engage in sociable activities of taking tea, playing in a garden, making music, or simply sit or stand in the landscape or interior. But here, the scene has been given a narrative that is both imagined and ambiguous. The unseen danger to which the sisters are reacting creates a source of tension and uncertainty. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), observed how intimations of terror that were not directly injurious or life-threatening were in fact pleasurable, ‘a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror’. This pleasurable enjoyment of fear extended into literature, such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and gardens, like the semi-wilderness of Studley Royal in Yorkshire.


Two sisters in a landscape is far from the wild and sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich or Philip James de Loutherbourg, but it indicates that the conversation piece continued to reflect the evolving culture of eighteenth century society. A signature, ‘Arthur Devis’, has been later added to the bottom right hand corner. Devis, however, had all but ceased work by 1780, and the animated sisters are far from his stiff and static compositions.  This scene instead combines portraiture with naturalism and narrative, with an ambiguity that leaves us wondering who the sisters are, and what it is that awaits them.

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