Ever since I came across a collection of small group portraits, known as "conversation pieces," by painters such as Hogarth, Gainsborough, Zoffany and Arthur Devis, at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, I have been curious about that genre.
"Conversation Pieces" is the intriguing name for an informal group portraits, especially those painted in Britain in the 18th century. They usually portray a group engaged in some activity, very often conversation. Many of those paintings depict a family, from the upper middle class, but there are also paintings of friends in different outdoor activities (such as hunting), or colleagues (like Zoffany's famous painting of the Academicians of the Royal Academy).
In contrast to paintings which depict grand public or symbolic events from the Bible or from other sources of western tradition and history, conversation pieces tell the story of ordinary private life at that period. Thus, today's observer would probably be unfamiliar with the particular story told in the painting. Most likely that observer would also not know who the protagonists were and what was the nature of their conversation .
Although, with the passing of time, the exact details of each painting may be obscure, the scenes are usually communicative and accessible. Moreover, because conversation pieces tell personal stories about regular people like us, in families almost like ours, they seem relevant and are easy to relate to. Moreover, the range of emotions which are reflected in the paintings such as contentment, joy or sorrow are familiar and even universal .
But there is still a sense of mystery as important parts of the stories remain untold. Looking at a man in uniform showing a piece of paper to a young lady, in Arthur Davis' painting, we wonder who is that man and what does that paper contain, is it an open letter? The observer can only speculate. And as the father in Gainsborough's portrait seems to have no sons, is he worried about the future of his daughters and his estate? Finally, does the empty chair in the third Gainsborough's painting (featuring the Strode family), mean anything? Why is there only one woman in that household?
For me making up the stories in the conversation pieces is the main attraction of the genre. It is up to the observer to reunite the plot with the emotions. The name "conversation pieces" originally refers to the conversations among the characters in the painting itself. But there is another on-going conversation between the artist and the observers. That conversation keeps on changing with different time and place: the visitors at the Yale center for British art in the twenty first century New Haven are not the same as those who have been visiting the different galleries in England for two hundred years. Even new information can change the nature of that conversation, I saw many art historians among the visitors at Yale. It could be, for example, that their research into the paintings found evidence of social commentary. And of course we cannot forget the real or internal conversations among the observers who stand in front the paintings in the gallery.
In a way conversation pieces are like the human interest stories in the newspaper or at the end of the news. They are the triumph of the ordinary slice of life over the magnificent. They focus on the story of the individual and not on the collective memory. Since I love happy endings it is delightful to see that, already in the 18th century, the personal story which often had been just a small detail in the background of a grandiose painting, has been promoted into central stage.