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John Jennings Esq., his Brother and Sister-in-Law

The portrait shows the iron-foundry proprietor and businessman John Jennings, his brother and sister-in-law. John Jennings is shown sitting at the front of the painting, proudly showing off his relations with a sweeping gesture. This group portrait invites us into the androgynous role-playing of the 18th century. The characters are all wearing makeup, they are finely dressed and they act out gestures and looks towards the beholder of the painting. This theatricality is also evident in the bodies of the characters. Look at the sister-in-law’s upright stance and the elegant gestures of the brothers. These show how our bodies and the way in which we move are formed by the age in which we live. The 18th century was an age of tight corsets, ceremonial rituals and obligatory ballet exercises at court. These exercises were common to both men and women and they had a strong influence on the way people moved their bodies. Try holding your hands in the same positions that we see in the painting. The positions feel strange to say the least. Practice was needed! Role-playing and masquerades were favorite pastimes of 18th century aristocratic society. There was no strict boundary between female and male appearance. Not even in everyday terms. Our meeting with Roslin’s 18th century portraits helps us to understand the conventions of our own time regarding what is considered masculine, feminine, androgynous, sexual and erotic. We are reminded that the conventions are in a constant state of change.