February • 24 • 2021

Caroline E. Giddis
A Brief History of Art in Netflix’s Bridgerton
Bridgerton family arriving at the Somerset House picture gallery (Somerley Estate). Image © Netflix, Inc.

Bridgerton family arriving at the Somerset House picture gallery (Somerley Estate). Image © Netflix, Inc.

Now that we’ve properly doused ourselves in the candied delight that is Shondaland and Netflix’s hit show Bridgerton (and watched Regé-Jean Page on SNL), let’s soak up some of its artistic treasures. From costume designer Ellen Mirojnick to production designer Will Hughes-Jones, the brilliantly creative Bridgerton team managed to manifest a world of their own with a historical foundation of Regency England that extends into the fantastical. As viewers have discovered, however, many of the homes and palaces are very much real and can be visited in areas of Bath, York, and London such as Halton House, Castle Howard, Wilton House, and the Holburne Museum. Like many aspects of the show, the artwork and locations are rooted in history but delve into fantasy, with alterations and adaptations sprinkled throughout each episode to heighten the sense of reality within a fictional world.

A Very Real Picture Gallery: Somerley Estate

One of the most dazzling locations is Somerley Estate because of its picture gallery, which is seen in episode three “The Art of the Swoon.” Used as the location for filming scenes set at Somerset House, Somerley in Hampshire is a late-Georgian-style mansion and the seat of the Earl of Normanton. The picture gallery, presented as the new Somerset House wing, is actually home to a vast collection of seventeenth and eighteenth-century works by some of the period’s most famous artists. Among the collection are pieces by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The majority of the collection was accumulated from 1820 to 1868 by Welbore Ellis (1778–1868), the 2nd Earl of Normanton. [1]

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, Exhibition Room, Somerset House, 1808, Aquatint and etching, 194 x 259 mm, in Microcosm of London I (London: R. Ackermann, 1808-10), plate 2, Royal Academy of Arts. 03/6170. Image: Royal Academy.

When the Bridgerton family enters the picture gallery, viewers get a glimpse of the towering walls, stacked to the ceiling with paintings. Although the walls were digitally enhanced to imitate the height of the exhibition room at Somerset House, Somerley’s walls are still a mammoth ninety feet in reality. [2] Although the occasion in which the ton are visiting the gallery is to celebrate the opening of a new wing of Somerset House, the event imitates the London Royal Academy summer exhibition, which was typically the event of the season for the elite throughout the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

As the fictional artist Henry Granville (Julian Ovenden) mentions in the next episode, the hanging placement of an artwork was incredibly important, with its own committee dedicated to it. Granville jokes with Benedict about his work being “skied”—the event of a painting being hung near the ceiling of the picture gallery per the decision of the hanging committee. This was a fear for artists because it suggested that their work was not worth the viewers’ attention below, and many artists broke ties with the RA over matters of where their artwork was hung, among other restrictions that it later imposed. [3]

One of the presidents of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, dubbed “Sir Sloshua” by the rebellious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was the artist of twenty-six works in the Somerley collection. Among those are seven panels of the original designs for the West Window at New College, Oxford. [4] Throughout the picture gallery scenes, viewers can catch glimpses of the large panel works of allegorical women, one of which is Fortitude. These paintings unexpectedly reflect the expectations of the English women in Bridgerton. As Max Roldit wrote:

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Fortitude, 1779, oil on panel, Somerley Estate. Image: Birmingham Southern College.

Reynolds represented the Virtues under the features of the lovely and refined English ladies whom he was accustomed to paint; the draperies in which they are clothed are dressed of the eighteenth century, simplified no doubt, and chastened, but sometimes scarcely altered, as in the case of Temperance and Prudence. [5]

The Earl of Normanton purchased all seven of these in 1821 from the estate of the Marchioness of Thomond, Mary Palmer, who was Joshua Reynolds’s niece. Both the National Gallery and the crown have made offers of double and triple the original price to purchase them—to no avail. Normanton would not part with them and now they are a vital part of the walls of Somerley. [6]

Fortitude by Sir Joshua Reynolds hangs on the far left in this “Somerley Weddings,” photograph from a wedding reception in the picture gallery at Somerley Estate. Image: Somerley.

Bridgerton Family Portraits

Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the most celebrated artists of the era and a premiere portraitist of the eighteenth century. [7] If you were a lord, duchess, colonel, or any rank of the upper classes, you likely had your portrait painted by Reynolds or aspired to have one commissioned. It makes sense then why the Bridgertons would have multiple family portraits by Reynolds in their home. As Dr. Madeleine Pelling pointed out, the painting of the brothers Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), Benedict (Luke Thompson), and Colin (Luke Newton) is an adaptation of the preexisting Reynold’s work The Honorable Henry Fane with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair (1761–66), although with the actors’ likenesses superimposed on the figures, and slight changes to their dress, color palette, and removing items from the table.

Bridgerton brothers portrait. © Netflix, Inc. Image: @Bridgerton on Twitter.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Honorable Henry Fane (1739–1802) with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair, 1761–66, oil on canvas, 100 1/4 x 142 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: The Met.

The Bridgerton sisters’ portrait is different because it does not have an exact origin, but is derivative of  Reynolds because it contains elements of his style that are found in many of his portraits of upper-class women like Diana (Sackville), Viscountess Crosbie (1777). Looking between this piece and the Bridgerton sisters’ portrait, the rolling landscapes and cool color palettes are alike, with both containing a number of similar natural elements including  trees in the middle ground behind the subjects. It is clear that the Bridgerton showrunners wanted to achieve the effect of a Reynolds, but did not have an already existing painting  from which they could adapt. The result is nevertheless convincing, despite the figures of Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), Eloise (Claudia Jessie), and Francesca (Ruby Stokes) possessing a somewhat modern appearance in their rendering.

Bridgerton sisters portrait. © Netflix, Inc. Image: @Bridgerton on Twitter.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Diana (Sackville), Viscountess Crosbie, 1777, oil on canvas, 94 3/4 x 58 in., The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. 23.13. Image: The Huntington.

Somerset House Exhibition Gallery

As Richard Rand keenly identified, when Eloise and Penelope are discussing the decorative objectification of women in the artwork of the new wing, they are gazing at the very real Venus and Nymphs Bathing (1776) by Louis Jean François Lagrenée (1724–1805). This painting, a work that likely never left France, is not a work in the Somerley collection and would have been specifically chosen by showrunners to be featured here and added in post-production.

Louis Jean François Lagrenée, Venus and Nymphs Bathing, 1776, oil on canvas, Louvre Abu Dhabi. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Eloise and Penelope at Somerset House in “Art of the Swoon”. Image © Netflix, Inc.

Bridgerton’s now-notorious painting from the Duke of Hastings’s collection, which sparked the deliciously intimate hand-touching moment between Daphne and Simon (Regé-Jean Page), has been purported to be a Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) imitation by Rand and others. However, the eagle-eyed @_theiconoclass on TikTok identified it as Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (c. 1650) by Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691), but as a version that was modified with the removal of a few figures and elements from the landscape. Interestingly enough, the Somerley picture collection contains works by Patrick Nasmyth (1787–1831), a Scottish landscape painter who was greatly inspired by Claude Lorrain. [8] His father Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840) was believed to have even created copies of Lorrain’s work. It is very likely that a dreamy landscape by Nasmyth hangs in the spot in Somerley where we see the Bridgerton version of Cuyp’s work.

Daphne and Simon visiting Somerset House in “Art of the Swoon.” Image © Netflix, Inc.

Aelbert Cuyp, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, c. 1650, oil on wood, 18 x 22 7/8 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Josephine Bieber, in memory of her husband, Siegfried Bieber, 1970. 1973.155.2. Image: The Met.

Alexander Nasmyth, View of Crosbie Castle in Ayrshire, with the Isle of Arran Beyond, oil on canvas, 44 x 66.1 in., Private collection. Image: Artnet.

Hanging on the wall behind the two lovebirds in the same scene is The Plague (c. 1900) by John Collier, a work in which a woman is laying on the ground having just fainted or died. This painting fits perfectly with the title and theme of the episode “Art of the Swoon;” not to mention the fact that Daphne and Simon’s romantic moment is interrupted by Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen) swooning to catch Prince Friedrich’s (Freddie Stroma) attention. Similarly, because the work is titled The Plague, it could be a commentary on love as a plague in and of itself or even the ominous history of fainting women in nineteenth-century British painting. The “fallen woman” was a common trope of the century that existed primarily in literature and painting. This theme consisted of works that longingly gazed upon or empathetically examined the lives of women who had been cast out due to some—often promiscuous—indiscretion These women, according to real and mythologized anecdotes, then became impoverished, forced into prostitution, and eventually committed suicide to escape from their bleak prospects or shame. [9] The Plague immediately brings to mind a key example of this trope, Found, Drowned (c. 1850) by George Frederic Watts, a work inspired by Thomas Hood’s tragic 1844 poem "The Bridge of Sighs" about a destitute woman who had thrown herself off the Waterloo Bridge in London. Watts’s work was intended to create empathy for the unjust and dismal life many women encountered in the Victorian era, although many of these works still problematically attributed women’s sad fates to an inherent delicacy and weakness (love for the wrong man being the most common).

Daphne and Simon visiting Somerset House in “Art of the Swoon.” Image © Netflix, Inc. Image: TV Fanatic.

After John Collier, The Plague, 1902, engraving, illustration for The Graphic, December 20, 1902, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images.

George Frederic Watts, Found, Drowned, 1848–50, oil on canvas, 119.4 x W 213.4 cm, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, part of the original G. F. Watts Memorial Collection. Bequeathed, 1905. COMWG 161. Image: Art UK.

Regal Artwork

There are a number of other very real artworks shown throughout Bridgerton, not just in the picture gallery scenes. In the first five minutes of the show in “Diamond of the First Water,” viewers get a dazzling shot of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), enthroned and waiting for the presentation of the season’s newest eligible ladies. Behind the queen hangs what viewers could presume to be a portrait of a royal family in Buckingham Palace, but with the knowledge that these scenes were actually filmed at Wilton House, it is easy to identify the painting as Anthony van Dyck’s (1599–1641) Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, with his Family from c.1635, which is a part of the Wilton House collection.

Queen Charlotte awaiting the presentation of young ladies in Buckingham Palace in “Diamond of the First Water.” © Netflix, Inc. Image: House Beautiful.

Anthony van Dyck, Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, with his Family, c.1635, oil on canvas, 330 x 510 cm, Wilton House, Salisbury. Photo © Will Pryce. Image: Tate.

As others have noted, Juan de Pareja (1650) by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) can be seen behind Queen Charlotte in episode two “Shock and Delight,” although it too has been adapted in a few ways: his position is reserved, he has one hand placed on his jacket, and his other hand is present in the frame and is gloved. All of this was possibly added to make the work more resemble a royal portrait of one of Charlotte’s ancestors, as the show beautifully emphasized the very real multi-racial heritage of the queen. 

Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, oil on canvas, 32 x 27 1/2 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, purchase, Fletcher and Rogers Funds, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, supplemented by gifts from friends of the Museum, 1971. 1971.86. Image: The Met.

The subject of the work has a fascinating story: de Pareja (1606–1670) was a Spanish painter, born into slavery, who became a household member and workshop artist of Velázquez. [10] In 1654 he was finally liberated and became a notable painter in Madrid. His work now hangs in the prestigious Museo del Prado. 

Queen Charlotte reading Lady Whistledown’s report in “Shock and Delight.” Image © Netflix, Inc.

White’s Gentlemen's Club

 

About thirteen minutes into episode four “An Affair of Honor,” Henry Granville approaches Benedict Bridgerton about the paintings on the walls of White’s Gentlemen’s Club. Gazing at the landscape, Granville jokingly asks, “What do you think, Bridgerton? This one more to your liking?” to which Benedict replies, “A touch morose for my tastes.” The painting which they are discussing is A Shaded Avenue (c. 1775) by the French artist Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), known for his Rococo-style paintings, although this one shows no resemblance to the delicate, saturated pieces for which he is famous.

Henry Granville and Benedict Bridgerton discussing paintings in White’s Gentlemen’s Club in “An Affair of Honor.” Image © Netflix, Inc.

The two men move on to the next painting, which, upon viewing, Benedict states, “A tragedy. The hound deserved better.” This piece is the work of Charles Wilson Peale (1741–1827) titled Samuel Mifflin (1777–80). Funny enough, the dog is not present in the original and must have been added for comedic effect for this moment in the show.

Charles Wilson Peale, Samuel Mifflin, 1777–80, oil on canvas, 49 7/8 x 39 3/4 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Egleston Fund, 1922. 22.153.1.  Image: The Met.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, A Shaded Avenue, c. 1775, oil on wood, 11 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jules Bache Collection, 1949. 49.7.51.  Image: The Met.

Henry Granville’s Studio and Artwork

 

In episodes four and five, Benedict visits the artist Henry Granville’s studio for first a life drawing session and then for a risqué soiree. Although the life drawing session in “An Affair of Honor” seems relatively tame compared to the lively party Granville holds later, it would have been quite shocking for the time. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries art academies carried on the traditions of drawing from sculptures and casts, with artists building up to drawing nude models from life, but only men were allowed to attend these drawing sessions. In Granville’s drawing class, not only are there nude female models, which was risqué in itself, but women artists also in attendance. This would have been another reason to keep Granville’s sessions an invite-only secret, for women were barred from participating in nude life drawing well into the nineteenth century, especially if practicing alongside men—one of Linda Nochlin’s key arguments for the lack of success among women artists. [11] It was viewed as indecent and a possibly compromising situation to their innocence. [12] By the time the Royal Academy allowed women to draw from life in the 1890s, the models were often draped and the women were separated away from the male students. [13] This private drawing session would have been revolutionary in terms of an artistic educational environment, making Granville even more of a rebel than he already is as a character.

The life drawing session in Granville’s studio in “An Affair of Honor.” Image © Netflix, Inc.

Adding to Granville’s rebellious nature, Benedict notices artwork in his studio that is very unlike the reserved pieces he shows to the public. Rand, Katie White from Artnet, and others have pointed out that these artworks, primarily shown in episode five “The Duke and I,” are actually notable pieces by titans of art history. When Benedict enters Granville’s home on the first occasion, we get a glimpse of a presumed Granville work, which is actually The Sleeping Danaë Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter (1603) by Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617). Upon his arrival in the next episode, we see Orazio Gentileschi’s (1563–1639) Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1621–23) on another wall. Later, when Genevieve Delacroix introduces Benedict to Lucy Granville, the painting hanging above them is Cupid and Psyche (1817) by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). In his article, Rand comically balked at their inclusion by writing, “Art historians can only blanch at the absurdity of these early 17th-century pictures, one by an Italian, the other by a Dutch artist, being claimed as the work of a painter in Regency England." [14]

Painting in Granville’s home/studio in “The Duke and I.” Image © Netflix, Inc.

Orazio Gentileschi, Danaë and the Shower of Gold, 1621–23, oil on canvas, 63 9/16 × 89 7/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum. 2016.6. Image: Getty.

Jacques-Louis David, Cupid and Psyche, 1817, oil on canvas, 72 1/2 x 95 1/8 in., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund. 1962.37. Image: Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Duchess

In episode six “Swish,” Daphne, having just become the Duchess of Hastings, receives a tour of her new home Clyvedon Castle (filmed at Castle Howard) from Ms. Colson. As they climb the stairway, they both stop to gaze upon a portrait of Simon’s mother Sarah and the former Duchess. This is yet another portrait adapted from a real work of art, this time being Thomas Gainsborough’s Mary Little, later Lady Carr (c. 1765). Gainsborough (1727–1788) was another leading artist and portraitist of the eighteenth century, with Reynolds as his rival, but is often more well known for his landscapes rather than his portraits.

Sarah Basset, the Duchess of Hastings’s portrait in “Swish.” Image © Netflix, Inc.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mary Little, later Lady Carr, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in., Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, Bequest of Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham. Image: Google Arts and Culture.

This lovely portrait, along with the numerous adaptations of real artwork included in the show, is just another example of Shondaland and Netflix’s incredible approach to synthesizing history and fiction to create a modern work of beauty. Art, especially that found in early-nineteenth-century settings, was a vehicle for displaying family heritage, status, values, interests, and contemplations with the world. The real-life meanings of these works are just as important as the fictionally constructed ones for revealing aspects of plot, character development, and emotion. On rare occasions, movies and shows use art as a vital element to storytelling, but Bridgerton has far exceeded previous instances because of the ways in which they used, adapted, and created artwork for the show that molded it into a character in and of itself. Much like the costuming, the art in Bridgerton has been given a voice through which to speak, develop, and contribute to storylines. We can only hope they carry this practice into season two because every art historical easter egg made the show even more enjoyable to devour again and again.

• • •

Caroline E. Giddis is a writer, art historian, and creative communicator with an MA in art history from Savannah College of Art and Design and a BA in public relations and Spanish from The University of Alabama. Her research focuses on the long nineteenth century with special interests in perceptions of women, proto-feminism, and intersections of visual and literary culture. As the Alfred Appel, Jr. Curatorial Fellow in 2020, Giddis curated "Collecting and Connecting: Recent Acquisitions, 2010–2020," an exhibition of recent acquisitions at the Delaware Art Museum, which opens this March.

Endnotes
  1. Max Roldit, “The Collection of Pictures of the Earl of Normanton, at Somerley, Hampshire. Article I. Pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 2, no. 5 (July 1903): 206.

  2. “Filming,” Somerley, accessed January 26, 2021, https://somerley.com/light/filming/.

  3. “Britain's Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s” National Gallery of Art, accessed January 25, 2021, https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/britains-royal-academy-of-art-in-the-late-1700s-and-early-1800s.html#slide_1.

  4. Roldit, “The Collection of Pictures of the Earl of Normanton, at Somerley, Hampshire. Article I. Pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds,” 211.

  5. Ibid., 212.

  6. Ibid., 211.

  7. “Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792),” The National Gallery, accessed February 20, 2021, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/sir-joshua-reynolds.

  8. Max Roldit, “The Collection of Pictures of the Earl of Normanton, at Somerley, Hampshire. Article II. Works by British Painters Other Than Sir Joshua Reynolds,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 2, no. 5 (July 1903): 231.

  9. Lynn Nead, “The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting,” Oxford Art Journal 7, no. 1 (1984): 30-32.

  10. “Juan de Pareja (1606–1670),” The Met, accessed February 20, 2021, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437869.

  11. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1989), 145-178.

  12. Enid Zimmerman, “Art Education for Women in England from 1890-1910 as Reflected in the Victorian Periodical Press and Current Feminist Histories of Art Education,” Studies in Art Education 32, no. 2 (Winter, 1991): 113, https://doi.org/10.2307/1320282.

  13. Zimmerman, 109.

  14. Richard Rand, “Looking at the Real and Imagined Paintings of Bridgerton,” Iris (Getty blog), January 7, 2021, https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/looking-at-the-real-and-imagined-paintings-of-bridgerton/.