My Favourite Painting: Aileen Ribeiro

'Does Finale mean the last notes of the music or the end of an affair?'

Aileen Ribeiro on her choice of Finale by Sir John Lavery

I love this painting because of its beauty – the harmony of the aesthetic interior and the elegant woman at the piano, her profile half-glimpsed. How artists have loved painting the beauty of a woman’s back, particularly when enhanced by her clothes.

Here, we see a fashionable dress of blue damask, tight to the waist, the back folds cascading onto the polished, dark-wooden floor. It seems to me that the very perfection of this toilette helps to deepen the painting’s sense of mystery, introspection and a slight, pleasurable melancholy. Does Finale mean the last notes of the music or the end of an affair?

Aileen Ribeiro is a historian of dress. Her latest book is Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion 1600–1914

John McEwen comments on Finale

Lavery’s beginnings were turbulent. He was four when his father, a Belfast publican, and his mother died, so he was brought up by relations. His first job was as a photographer’s retoucher in Glasgow, fitting in classes at the Haldane Academy of Art, forerunner of the Glasgow School of Art.

When his sister came for help, he turned her down. Two days later, she committed suicide. ‘My miserable want of courage and affection… haunts me still,’ he wrote in the last year of his life.

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Always internationally minded, he studied for three years in Paris and had a picture hung in the Salon alongside Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergères. On his return, he was commissioned by Glasgow Corporation to paint the State visit of Queen Victoria. ‘Thus at one swoop I was ushered into royal circles,’ he wrote. The commission made him a leading Society portraitist, but, wrote his biographer Kenneth McConkey, ‘the Lavery oeuvre is one of astonishing variety’.

Lavery wrote that he and his Glasgow contemporaries recognised Whistler as the greatest living artist and ‘thought of his Ten O’Clock Lecture as the Gospel of Art’. Lavery met his hero in 1886 and became a friend.

In her formidable history, Clothing Art, Aileen Ribero notes Finale’s mood of melancholy and introspection: ‘The relative plainness and simplicity of the aesthetic interior’, the Japanese fan on the wall, ‘suggest the influence of Whistler’. But Lavery shows more interest in the dress – the revival of a late-18th-century style then fashionable – known as a robe à l’anglaise.

The artist has stormed back to fashion over the past 40 years. In 2004, Finale sold for £600,000.

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