In 1768, Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of
Elizabeth and Thomas Linley in
oil paint. Today it is on display at the
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in
Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is amazing.
The subjects look like a mother and son.
Both are intensely sad and fair. They do
not show despair: they stare with the genuine
curiosity that often accompanies pain. There
are no blatant signs of deviance from straight-faced ordinary
life, but there are many more subtle marks of distress:
Their eyes look moist. Dollops of eggshell-colored
paint highlight the whites of each eye. This
immediately draws attention, as they are the only points on the
painting that are significantly thicker than the
background. The tears also refract the eyes'
twinkle out of the iris. The eyes seem slightly bloodshot,
with vague pink tones in the whites. They are framed by dark,
washed-out areas near the eyebrows and dark circles under
On Thomas's forehead, above his right eye, there is
a bump. When babies furrow their brows in distress, this
bump on the edge of the eyebrow is the most pronounced
Both subjects' expressions are resigned.
Thomas's mouth is straight except one raised corner,
expressing an unsorrowful acceptance of pain.
Elizabeth's is a more dramatically numb, sullen straight face.
Both mouths stand out: they are sharply detailed and colored
well with bright red paint.
Elizabeth and Thomas stare at you with unmoving, intense
focus. Thomas presses his head to Elizabeth's shoulder without
supporting his weight on it. (His hair is not flattened, her dress
is undisturbed, and his face seems to barely touch the fabric.).
Elizabeth is gazing over Thomas. Though Thomas's eyes face
you directly, his face and body do not, and neither does
Elizabeth. This all creates the impression that they
have just turned slowly to see who was disturbing them.
Thomas and Elizabeth both have beautiful hazel eyes. At first glance,
Thomas's left eye seems blue and his right eye green. The left
eye is blue to match Elizabeth's dress; the right green-brown
eye matches the trees in the background and Thomas's red
hunting vest. They all are painted with blue and green paint.
Elizabeth wears a blue satiny dress with quick, rough folds.
Thomas wears a green shirt and red hunting vest. The
painting of fabric is accurate but rough.
They both have beautiful, slightly curly hair. Thomas has
brown hair down to his neck with about two-inch bangs.
Elizabeth has black, longer hair (maybe 5-6 inches).
The background consists of part of a tree sketched on
the right and part of a waterfall on the left. Everything except
the subjects' faces and Elizabeth's neck is in dull tones,
relegating the emotion to the foreground.
Thomas and Elizabeth Linley were siblings. When the picture
was painted, they both had already shown themselves to be
musical prodigies, Thomas as a violinist and composer, and
Elizabeth as a singer. Elizabeth was fourteen years old, and Thomas
I first became interested in this picture while walking through the Clark Art
with a friend from school. A passionate old man walked up to us and remarked
on how it was, "beautiful... just beautiful." He went on to tell us about the subjects:
how Thomas Linley was a close friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and they
went to summer camp together, and how the Linleys had a very difficult life
and retreated into music. We continued to talk to this man about singing in
chorus, about other paintings, and about some nearby opera house, but
eventually we had to leave him, and we were left only with our own
curiosity. I never did verify the friendship between Linley and Mozart,
but it makes sense.