5. Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott (1754?–1823)

Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in public domain

This stupendous portrait by Gainsborough seems to be of a princess: the woman wears an elegant gown of gold cloth trimmed with silver thread and carries her train demurely in front of her; she also sports a foot high powdered wig-like hairdo, in the style of Marie Antoinette’s court.

In fact, the subject, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, was a friend of Marie Antoinette’s, but she was a high class courtesan, and the portrait was paid for by her principal patron, the Marquess of Cholmondeley. Was Grace really this perfectly elegant? She might have been. Unlike most courtesans, who were generally the daughters of prostitutes/courtesans or born poor, she was born into the upper classes and came to her profession through a failed marriage. She also was mistress to some extraordinarily high-ranking men: not only Cholmondeley, but the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) — to whom she may have borne a daughter — and the Duc d’Orléans, who was second in line of succession in France. In fact, the portrait is less racy than many of aristocratic ladies of this period — though the long string leading to a locket hidden in her well-concealed bosom may hint at its famous ampleness….