The first cloud
- oil on canvas
- 134.8 × 193.7 cm
- Accession Number
- International Painting
- Credit Line
- National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
- Gallery location
- 19th Century European Paintings Gallery
Level 2, NGV International
Purchased from the artist by Thomas Agnew & Sons (dealer), London, 27 April 1887, stock no. 4465; from where purchased, on the advice of Edward Langton, for the NGV, 2 May 1887.
Exhibited Royal Academy, London, 1887, no. 291; Second Intercolonial Exhibition, Sydney, 1896, no. 3; Royal Academy, London, 1968–69, no. 329; Sir William Quiller Orchardson RA, organised by the Scottish Arts Council, Edinburgh (and touring), 1972, no. 49; Sex, Sentiment and Symbol: Representations of Women in Victorian Art, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand, 1998–99; Love and Death, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2001.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1887, The first cloud is one of William Quiller Orchardson’s finest commentaries on the social life and manners of his time. A Scotsman who had trained in Edinburgh, Orchardson moved to London in 1862. He soon made a name for himself as a painter of anecdotal narratives and elegant comedy-of-manners pictures set in eighteenth-century and Napoleonic-era surrounds – works in which he paid careful attention to details of dress and interior decoration.
One of the artist’s earliest paintings to depict people in contemporary dress, The first cloud observes a couple who have just returned from an evening out (they are formally attired, and there is no fire in the grate). The evening has turned sour, however, the implication being that this cloud is but the first in a storm that threatens to engulf the marriage. Orchardson was frequently daring in the way in which he painted open space and ‘empty’ areas in his compositions, allowing the viewer to better focus upon the social dramas being enacted. The cold room and the bare parquetry floor of The first cloud offer a perfect setting for this frosty scene of marital discord.
In the early 1880s, political reforms – ushered in by William Gladstone, leader of the progressive Liberal Party, who in 1880 had won Britain’s general election for the second time – had considerably enhanced the status of women in Britain. Gladstone had promised to address the legal inequalities that existed between men and women, and the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 entitled married women, for the first time, to hold title to property in their own right. Prior to the enactment of this legislation, anything a married woman owned was automatically regarded in law as the property of her husband. It is interesting to consider whether this recent, radical Act of Parliament might have a role to play in the unfolding of the marital dispute depicted in The first cloud.