Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen is a huge triple portrait of the Montgomery sisters by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It thematizes aristocratic marriage and uses classical elements to allegorize the portrait. Exactly this type of marriage is represented in the Bridgerton Netflix series.
The first president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds, depicts the Montgomery sisters as the three graces and shows them celebrating marriage by worshipping the Greek god Hymen. It was a very expensive commission by Luke Gardiner of his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth, and her two sisters. At the time it cost £450, the equivalent of over £40,000!
“This will be the best picture I ever painted.”Joshua Reynolds to Luke Gardiner, The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds, letter 34, Ingemells and Edgcumbe, Yale University Press.
“I wish to have their portraits painted together at full length, representing some emblematical or historical subject; the idea of which, and the attitudes which will best suit their forms, cannot be so well imagined as by one who has so eminently distinguished himself by his genius and poetic invention.”Luke Gardiner to Joshua Reynolds, recorded by Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1813, London.
The Irish Graces
The huge painting (290x338cm) is of the aristocratic Montgomery sisters, Elizabeth (1751-83, center), Anne, Lady Townshend (1752-1819, right), and Barbara (1757-88, left). A newspaper at the time, The Public Advertiser, described them as ‘The Irish Graces.’ This is on account of their beauty, childhood in Ireland, and the way Reynolds’ poses them.
In Classical tradition, the graces, also know as the three charities, are daughters of Zeus (Euphrosyne, Aglaea, and Thalia).
The graces delight guests at parties, just as portraits alluding to them would have done in the 18th century.
By using the poses of the three graces, Reynolds compliments his sitters because the reference implies classical beauty. Therefore it pleases the patron – who is likely the suitor or husband – and gratifies the viewers.
In Reynolds’ portrait of the Montgomery sisters as graces he gives them theatrically wind-blown hair and beautiful complexions. There is an elegant motion with the chain of flowers linking them together in a balletic and strikingly lit composition.
On the right, beside a smoking altar, is Anne (as Thalia representing beauty) in a white dress that befits a married woman. In the middle is Gardiner’s fiance, Elizabeth as Aglaea (representing elegance). Finally, Barbara as Euphrosyne (representing mirth) kneels on the left while handing up flowers to Elizabeth for the wreath. She is furthest away from marriage in real-life and symbolically in the painting. Sounds like what we learn from the Bridgerton series, right?
“You have been already informed, I have no doubt, of the subject which we have chosen; the adorning of a Term of Hymen with festoons of flowers. This affords sufficient employment to the figures, and gives an opportunity of introducing a variety of graceful historical attitudes.”Joshua Reynolds to Luke Gardiner, The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds, letter 34, Ingemells and Edgcumbe, Yale University Press.
The sisters are in a garden decorating a statue of the Greek god Hymen with flowers. It is a ritual in celebration of marriage taking place in a fecund garden.
Pindar, the 5th-century lyric poet mentions Hymen as a son of Apollo and one of the muses. Hymen is familiar from Roman nuptial poems and rites, and is meant to bring happy marriages.
Of course, we also know the word hymen to mean the membrane of skin which closes the vagina. So it also denotes virginity, a boundary to wifedom (in the context of the 18th-century). The idea of a boundary is picked up by the word that the title of the painting uses for the statue, a term that can mean a marking stone for borders.
Graces in a garden for Gardiner
Another allusion to female sexuality is the garden itself. Reynolds gives us lots of details here, such as the cultivated landscaped garden and stream in the background.
“Reynolds thus chose to paint three young women in a garden setting in fulfilment of a commission from a gentleman named Gardiner suggesting he was not, himself, incapable of enjoying a pun.”Marcia Pointon, English portraiture in the Long Eighteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Gardiner, as an Irish politician, was involved in law changes in Ireland and at the time the 1753 Hardwicke Marriage Act meant marriages now had to take place in churches with licenses. This means that the ritual in the painting is possibly a reference to the new barriers in place for marriage. Making the pun on terminus, boundaries, and hymens all the more significant.
18th-century marriage like in the Bridgerton series
Luke and Elizabeth married in July 1773 and the painting went on display in the following year’s Royal Academy exhibition. For contemporary viewers, it is thus a portrait of two wives and their younger sister, who is literally still on the market. The painting garners popularity and makes Barbara more likely to become someone’s wife.
The swathe of deep-red drapery in the background, the shadow-casting gnarly tree in the center, and the looming statue between Elizabeth and Anne give a slightly ominous tone to the painting. This is fitting for the somber reality of marriage in the 18th century, so exactly in the period in which the fictional Bridgerton story is placed.
“The imagery of woman was contained within the parameters of her prescribed social role as man’s other and his possession.”Marcia Pointon, English portraiture in the Long Eighteenth Century, Oxford University Press,1997.
This painting is arguably a celebration of marriage as a female rite of passage. It’s also an allegorical portrait of women in classicizing costumes and actions. Both of these elements are gendered. It is rare to see a man painted allegorically. It’s even rarer to see a man depicted as celebrating the transition from bachelor to husband. Sadly, Elizabeth died in childbirth at the age of 32.
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