The ability to achieve a likeness was always to some degree an innate talent. At the highest level it was the rarest representational skill and - in England at least - the most marketable. It was a gift which Thomas Gainsborough showed early; in one account, so impressing a friend of his mother's when he was still a boy that his father was persuaded he should go to London for instruction. But this talent wasn't necessarily combined with other painterly abilities. Gainsborough and Maurice-Quentin de La Tour were both reckoned remarkable getters of likeness, and both had significant weaknesses, or lack of interest, in other departments. Contemporaries claim again and again that their portraits seem to put you in the presence of a person, not a picture. It was probably Gainsborough's friend Philip Thicknesse who wrote that his 'pictures may not be said so properly to be like the originals as to be the people themselves', and similar remarks were made about La Tour's pastels. The critical language would be equally appropriate for a piece of legerdemain - which was, in a way, what the use of flickering marks on a surface to conjure up a person amounted to.
LRB 28 November 2002 | PDF Download