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Who Wears the Pants in Your Family?

April 13, 2016



When Mrs. Chatterbox and I go to the mall, one of our favorite things to do is people watch. As a portrait painter, I analyze people and mentally sketch them. When it comes to couples, I often find myself trying to figure out the family dynamic—as in who wears the pants in the family. In my own family, it was my mother who wore the pants, figuratively and literally, and made all the decisions. This brings me to Thomas Gainsborough’s double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews.


Painted in 1750 when the artist was twenty-one, this stunning double portrait remained in the sitters’ family until the 1960s and was relatively unknown until recently. Today it’s one of Britain’s most popular paintings, challenging Gainsborough’s Blue Boy in popularity, and there’s much to see in it. I’m particularly intrigued by the dynamic between recently married twenty-one-year old Robert Andrews and sixteen-year-old Frances Mary Carter.




Mr. and Mrs. Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough, 1750


This is not a depiction of romantic love; it took considerable effort for Andrews’ parents to arrange a suitable match for their son since the region had few heiresses. If you look closely you’ll notice these two people do not touch, not even to brush against each others’ clothing. Mr. Andrews seems to get more affection from his hunting dog.



Detail of Robert Andrews' hunting dog


This painting is actually a business card announcing status, a bolstering of Andrews Incorporated. These two young people are not nobility. They share no royal blood, but they are landed gentry and the inheritors of several family businesses, and they do not work with their hands. She is dressed in a casual everyday outfit even though it looks fancy to our eyes; he is dressed in everyday clothes suitable for hunting or exploring his new estate.


Actually, the precisely rendered estate in the background belonged to her family and was acquired by Mr. Andrews as part of her dowry. Gainsborough preferred

painting landscapes to portraits and lovingly depicts the English countryside with consummate skill. The artist has taken a few liberties, but the landscape is recognizable today, although the oak tree is much bigger now than it was in the eighteenth century. The couple were married in the church in the background, All Saints in Gainsborough’s home town of Sudsbury. On the right hand side can be seen the barns of Frances' childhood home at Ballington Hall.


Robert Andrews strikes me as rather passive. He may be a few years older than his bride, but to my eyes she appears to be calling the shots; her sly expression seems to say, “This is my land and don’t you forget it!” Perhaps it was she who insisted the artist lavish attention on the background, the land she brought into the marriage.



Detail of Robert Andrews




Detail of Mrs. Andrews


It’s unknown why this painting was left unfinished. The space on Mrs. Andrews’ lap is incomplete. Perhaps the artist intended to add a baby, and one arrived a year after this painting was completed. Frances would eventually produce another eight children before passing away in 1780 at the age of forty-eight. From the expression on her girlish face at this early stage of their marriage, I imagine she gave Mr. Andrews a run for his money.




Detail of Mrs. Andrews' unfinished lap


Who wears the pants in your family?




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By: Ellen Abbott on April 13, 2016
My wife lets me wear the pants on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays :)
By: Rick Watson on April 13, 2016
Do pajama bottoms count? That's what I usually wear!!
By: fishducky on April 13, 2016
I think we're pretty evenly matched, although I mostly defer to Mike because I can't be bothered :)
By: The Bug on April 13, 2016
She does look mischievous. My wife is a strong influence and my job is to make her happy, but even she would say I am the leader of our household.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on April 13, 2016
Interesting - I'm very familiar with this painting but have never looked at it in this analytical way before. What you wrote reminds me a bit of JOhn Berger's book "Ways of Seeing" - have you read it? I I do agree she looks as if she is the one in charge. He really doesn't look that bright!
By: Jenny woolf on April 13, 2016
It is very important in our relationship that he believes he is in charge! Mrs. Andrews looks seriously pissed off!
By: The Broad on April 13, 2016
I'm almost positive it's Mrs. Penwasser. But, I'll have to wait until she gets home from work to ask her.
By: Al Penwasser on April 13, 2016
I think you can tell by the name I've given her: SWMBO, for She Who Must Be Obeyed.
By: Catalyst on April 13, 2016
This couple seems a good match, however I'm struck by their eyes. I presume Gainsborough is being literal. Can't put my finger on it, but something seems off or odd. As for your question I love the look of my wife in pant suits. I think she is her most beautiful and alluring when wearing what we call her "Tuxedo" ensemble. It is an elegant evening arrangement worn when we do black tie or formal affairs. If the question is about power or decision making, well that's been a decades long shared arrangement with only a few dust ups or hissy fits.
By: Tom Cochrun on April 13, 2016
I think we both do-sometimes making joint decisions, sometimes one defers to the other- we make a pretty good team!
By: Kathe W. on April 13, 2016
I wear the jammies in the family. Franklin and Penelope prefer their fur coats. If I had been Mrs. Andrews, I would have lavished attention on the dog. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on April 13, 2016
We share depending on the chore or topic. I handle money, taxes, and anything dealing with decorating, food, and general house hold items. He handles providing me with money, travel, anything dealing with our farm, and anything requiring maintenance. Big ticket purchase, we share decision equally, any discussion or decision dealing with our kids we share.
By: Cheryl P. on April 13, 2016
I wish my parents could have arranged for me to marry a wealthy heiress.
By: PT Dilloway on April 13, 2016
I get my way about 60% of the time but we agree on most things, so it is not much of a contest.
By: Tabor on April 13, 2016
The way she is cutting her eyes at him, he didn't have a chance. Good thing he at least had a dog. When I was married, it was him all the way.
By: Arkansas Patti on April 13, 2016
It would be very interesting to be in your art appreciation classes as you see things that the ordinary guy would never see. The micro manager wears the pants in my family!
By: red Kline on April 13, 2016
We have to share, because at this zoo, it's too much to do it alone!
By: messymimi on April 13, 2016
Me, of course. How else would he remember to PUT ON pants, or remember to breathe in and breathe out?
By: Val on April 13, 2016
I think he looks relaxed and blase. She looks pissed off though. She probably thinks he should pay more attention to her. 48 is pretty young to die. I guess it was all those kids. My husband and I both wear the pants and fight a lot. Somehow we just ignore it and move on. So far, anyway...
By: Lexa Cain on April 14, 2016
I think she looks unhappy. They both do, actually. And since I'm on my own, the pants are all mine.
By: Hilary on April 14, 2016
I think I can honestly say that neither of us do. Red and I have this amazing balance. Of course, we've been married less than two years, so maybe the dynamic will change a little with time.
By: Brett Minor (Transformed Nonconformist) on April 14, 2016
I wear the pants Mrs. Cranky tells me to buy.
By: cranky on April 14, 2016
The dog! Thanks for the insight into a painting I've not studied.
By: Sage on April 14, 2016
I really like the way the artist used color to create the light shading. Hard to believe that artist was only 21. I have to wonder what the relationship between the couple was really like. Maybe she did "wear the pants," as you suggest.
By: Sherry Ellis on April 14, 2016
Her poor hubs couldn't get any action given the girth of her skirt. That must've worked better than a chastity belt.
By: Robyn Engel on April 14, 2016
In this day and age I would say everyone has an opportunity to wear pants... be they underpants or other.
By: Daniel LaFrance on April 15, 2016
This post is a pleasure. I wish you had been one of my art history profs! I had never noticed her sly/knowing expression.
By: Mitchell Is Moving on April 16, 2016
I take the 5th on pants in our family... I think I agree with you about her expression, she looks like she would gladly spit in his eye if he would cross her... I didn't pay attention until you pointed out that that one section was unfinished. It's probably my bias, but I saw it as some fabric in her lap, as if she were starting an embroidery. Cat
By: Cat on April 19, 2016

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