Robert Bateman, a little-known disciple of Edward Burne-Jones, exhibited his full-length portrait of his wife, Caroline, at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1886. She is shown walking in an autumnal landscape, by implication in the park or garden of an English country house—indicated by the ornamental urn behind her and the sweeping view over the valley in the distance. Immediately striking is the almost Pre-Raphaelite obsession with minute details of dress, accessories, and landscape, all the more surprising at the height of the Aesthetic Movement in England when a generally freer handling of paint had superseded the tight linear clarity found here.
Notable too is the homage Bateman pays to the eighteenth-century Grand Manner, subtly evoked by his wife’s costume. This lovingly delineated dress of black silk or crape, trimmed at the sleeves just below the elbow with flounces of lace and worn with a wrap of antique lace, fills almost half the canvas. Whoever designed it wished to suggest the kind of garments worn by women in the paintings of Gainsborough or Reynolds, just as Renaissance artists used drapery to evoke the classical world, and rococo painters dressed their sitters in costumes based on those in Van Dyck’s portraits.
In recent years we have become much more willing to ask what the clothes worn by a sitter in a portrait tell us about his or her status, aspirations, and social milieu. As Aileen Ribeiro writes in her Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715–1789, first pub- lished in 1984 and now magnificently reprinted, “clothes played the most vital role in defining man and his part in society, to an extent that we cannot contemplate today.” When we look at pictures without analyzing the clothes the people in them are wearing, we don’t really see them.
But first, we need to know what we are looking at. Mrs. Bateman is shown in a formal dress consisting of a long black skirt worn with a bodice of the same color and material. Her ensemble is somber, but also fashionable. Under her skirt at the hips, she wears a crescent-shaped cage to hold a padded bustle, a distant echo both of the mid-Victorian crinoline and of the hooped skirts worn by women in the eighteenth century. Look closely and you see that her tight three-quarter-length sleeves are intricately embroidered with a pattern of tiny steel beads, while her chest is flattened and waist slimmed by tightly laced stays. Shell-shaped ornaments running down the front of the dress are repeated at the shoulder, bosom, and at the side of the bustle. At the back of the skirt there is a short train such English women wore in the 1750s, when the size of the hoop began to diminish and then disappeared altogether. You find velvet bands, exactly like the one she wears on her right wrist, in portraits by Reynolds and Joseph Wright of Derby.
A contemporary would have seen at once that Mrs. Bateman is in the second stage …