Grand portraits of three clearly dominant princesses greet the viewers at the entrance of the exhibit with slightly condescending smiles and stone cold gazes, making the observer feel small.
Though they do not look alike, all three women are similar in their outfits and atmosphere. They all wear extravagant dresses with pearl accents and lace ruffles, fur capes drape from their shoulders to the nearby red velvet chairs and jeweled broaches are placed ever so lightly atop their perfect ringlet hairstyles. The only thing that sets these paintings apart from other portrayals of wealthy aristocrats of the time is the crown each lady touches. All three paintings give a vibe of power, supremacy, sovereignty, and control.
The women portrayed in the glorious works of art are the basis for the exhibition, Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
Caroline of Ansbach, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha and Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz were unrelated German princesses who became linked when they married into the British royal family, and in their time of power, each individually contributed to the nation’s expansion and interest in knowledge, culture, and imperial ambition.
Oil paintings by artists such as Allan Ramsay, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough depict not only Princesses Caroline, Augusta and Charlotte, but also their spouses, King George II, King George III and Frederick, Prince of Wales, respectively. The males’ own portraits and busts are of a smaller scale, possibly comparing their lesser influence on Great Britain than that of their wives.
The princesses were interested in spreading knowledge throughout England, as seen in the room that was solely dedicated to portraits of leading radical intellectual figures of the age, including mathematician Sir Isaac Newton and philosopher Samuel Clarke, both friends of the princesses. Perhaps influenced by her scholarly acquaintances, Princess Caroline had an extensive library and encouraged the expansion of science and theory intelligence. Princess Charlotte also had an interest in learning, as she studied English, French, German and Italian in her large library at her home, Frogmore House.
Along with the inspiration to broaden the court’s horizons and add to their already-rich culture, the princesses also welcomed other forms of art into the palace, such as music and dance.
A wall projection in the exhibit shows a video of actors in period clothing dancing to a minuet by German composer George Frideric Handel, who taught Caroline’s daughter, Anne. Another room’s walls are filled with paintings of popular composers of their time, all of whom were close to the princesses, including Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel.
Another aspect of the show closely compared the three princesses in different categories: The way they raised their children, the kind of textiles and clothes they wore and the development of their gardens. Sir William Chambers, a Scottish-Swedish architect in London, worked closely with the three women in designing the gardens at Richmond and Kew and cultivating their interests in doing their own projects.
Although they may not have had a say in where to expand their dominion and what to do with those colonies, Caroline, Augusta and Charlotte established a great fascination for the new colonies in the British Empire. The areas that contributed to their expanding empire included parts of North America, the Caribbean, India and West Africa.
Many paintings and works of art reflect the common interest and curiosity to the peoples and cultures native to foreign lands. One in particular, titled Audience Given by the Trustees of Georgia to a Delegation of Creek Indians (1734-35) by William Verelst illustrates a scene of a first encounter of the natives from North America and British aristocrats. Both sides seem equally intrigued by the other, their cultures so different. The three princesses all shared a common attraction to the natural findings, native people, raw materials to be manufactured on the mainland, artwork, and knowledge found in the new colonies.
Focusing on the female royalty rather than the male rulers during the Hanoverian Court in Great Britain, the Yale Center for British Art beautifully organizes the show by directly comparing the lives of the royal women in their duties and interests as some of the most influential leaders of Great Britain.
Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World is showing at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut until Apr. 30.