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Thomas Gainsborough, The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly

Key facts
Full title The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly
Artist Thomas Gainsborough
Artist dates 1727 - 1788
Date made probably about 1756
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 113.5 × 105 cm
Acquisition credit Henry Vaughan Bequest, 1900
Inventory number NG1811
Location Room 35
Collection Main Collection
The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly
Thomas Gainsborough

The two little girls in this unfinished portrait are Mary and Margaret, Gainsborough’s daughters by his wife, Margaret Burr, and their only children to survive infancy. Mary was baptised on 3 February 1750 and Margaret on 22 August 1751. Mary was given the name of the couple’s first daughter, who died at about 18 months old.

Margaret and Mary run hand-in-hand through dark woodland in pursuit of a cabbage white butterfly, which has landed momentarily on a tall thistle. Margaret reaches out her hand, while Mary clutches her looped-up muslin apron as a net. The children’s attempt to catch the elusive butterfly may be intended to suggest the fleeting nature of childhood, and the fragility of children’s lives. The wood in Gainsborough’s picture is dark and sombre.

This is probably the earliest of at least six double portraits that Gainsborough painted of his daughters between about 1756 and 1770.

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