Object Image

The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly

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 child...

probably c. 1756
Oil on canvas
113.5 x 105.0cm
Image and text © The National Gallery, London, 2023

Where you'll find this

Deepen your knowledge