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In 1768, Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Elizabeth and Thomas Linley in oil paint. Today it is on display at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is amazing.

The subjects look like a mother and son. Both are intensely sad and fair. They do not show despair: they stare with the genuine curiosity that often accompanies pain. There are no blatant signs of deviance from straight-faced ordinary life, but there are many more subtle marks of distress:

  • Their eyes look moist. Dollops of eggshell-colored paint highlight the whites of each eye. This immediately draws attention, as they are the only points on the painting that are significantly thicker than the background. The tears also refract the eyes' twinkle out of the iris. The eyes seem slightly bloodshot, with vague pink tones in the whites. They are framed by dark, washed-out areas near the eyebrows and dark circles under the eyes.
  • On Thomas's forehead, above his right eye, there is a bump. When babies furrow their brows in distress, this bump on the edge of the eyebrow is the most pronounced feature.
  • Both subjects' expressions are resigned. Thomas's mouth is straight except one raised corner, expressing an unsorrowful acceptance of pain. Elizabeth's is a more dramatically numb, sullen straight face. Both mouths stand out: they are sharply detailed and colored well with bright red paint.
  • Elizabeth and Thomas stare at you with unmoving, intense focus. Thomas presses his head to Elizabeth's shoulder without supporting his weight on it. (His hair is not flattened, her dress is undisturbed, and his face seems to barely touch the fabric.). Elizabeth is gazing over Thomas. Though Thomas's eyes face you directly, his face and body do not, and neither does Elizabeth. This all creates the impression that they have just turned slowly to see who was disturbing them.

Thomas and Elizabeth both have beautiful hazel eyes. At first glance, Thomas's left eye seems blue and his right eye green. The left eye is blue to match Elizabeth's dress; the right green-brown eye matches the trees in the background and Thomas's red hunting vest. They all are painted with blue and green paint.

Elizabeth wears a blue satiny dress with quick, rough folds. Thomas wears a green shirt and red hunting vest. The painting of fabric is accurate but rough.

They both have beautiful, slightly curly hair. Thomas has brown hair down to his neck with about two-inch bangs. Elizabeth has black, longer hair (maybe 5-6 inches).

The background consists of part of a tree sketched on the right and part of a waterfall on the left. Everything except the subjects' faces and Elizabeth's neck is in dull tones, relegating the emotion to the foreground.

Thomas and Elizabeth Linley were siblings. When the picture was painted, they both had already shown themselves to be musical prodigies, Thomas as a violinist and composer, and Elizabeth as a singer. Elizabeth was fourteen years old, and Thomas twelve.

I first became interested in this picture while walking through the Clark Art with a friend from school. A passionate old man walked up to us and remarked on how it was, "beautiful... just beautiful." He went on to tell us about the subjects: how Thomas Linley was a close friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and they went to summer camp together, and how the Linleys had a very difficult life and retreated into music. We continued to talk to this man about singing in chorus, about other paintings, and about some nearby opera house, but eventually we had to leave him, and we were left only with our own curiosity. I never did verify the friendship between Linley and Mozart, but it makes sense.

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