There has not been a major exhibition of Restoration art in any national museum for the last two decades. Looking at “Painted Ladies,” which opens this weekend at the Yale Center for British Art, it is impossible to understand why.
Julia Marciari-Alexander — the exhibit’s curator and a Yale lecturer — has joined the National Portrait Gallery’s Catharine MacLeod to create an exhibition of Restoration portraiture that is simultaneously provocative and pleasing. The curators’ breathless rush through the court of Charles II ranks among the gallery’s most successful shows of the last two years.
And, while the show never stoops to entertain, it does just that: the Restoration, too often presented through insipid costume dramas, is one of the most exciting periods of English history.
Most of the era’s drama was sexual — Charles, though married, frequently sampled the ladies of his court. Whether those ladies happened to be married was, often, no object.
The question, for historians and critics, is whether the era’s morality freed woman to give them power and influence, or whether it quashed them even further. Charles’ favorites had cultural power, but he seemed to prey on them just as often as he doted.
But it is also, it should be said, the era when women first appeared on stage, and the era of the first full-time female writer, Aphra Behn.
Marciari-Alexander and MacLeod launch a vigorous defense of the idea that sexual liberation came with equivalent power.
In fact, Marciari-Alexander wrote her doctoral thesis suggesting this, and the exhibition itself can be seen as sound evidence — these women were intensely studied celebrities.
We are confronted with room after room of female faces, with bosoms variously exposed and dresses of varying taste. And these women are, by contemporary supermodel standards, remarkably ugly; they are pale and pasty-faced, thin-chinned and big-nosed.
But the court’s principal painter — the great successor of van Dyck, Sir Peter Lely — had such a gift for breathing personality into his portraits that it’s hard not to be taken with them.
The sensibility of the time is also keenly undecorous. One of Charles’ more famous long-time mistresses, Barbara Villiers, is shown holding up her illegitimate child as if she were Mary and the baby Jesus. So, too, are there several portraits of ladies dressed as Mary Magdelene, the reformed prostitute.
Read a certain way, the exhibition has a distressing undercurrent. While the curators warn that we should not judge the era’s morals, it is easy to see the women as empty images, easily mocked by the disdainful.
But part of the brilliance of the show lies in its coherence and tightness. By only including female portraits from such a narrow era, the visitor is left with an easy-to-swallow selection of art history. Part of the fun is in drawing different conclusions from the curators’ work.
The show’s layout is helpful: a section devoted to the early part of Charles II’s reign, two sections for two of his favorite mistresses, and a section on the end of the Restoration era. The show does well by devoting two large sections to just a pair of women, developing in greater depth two of the court’s more interesting personalities.
It is also worth, it should be noted, reading the history of each portrait, since each woman’s history really is the star of the show.
“Painted Ladies” should make art historians question why the Restoration is so often maligned and ignored.