Gagosian Quarterly

August 19, 2019

Rachel Feinsteinat Chatsworth

A new sculpture by Rachel Feinstein has been unveiled on the grounds of Chatsworth, the celebrated Derbyshire estate, where Feinstein recently spent time as Gucci’s inaugural artist in residence. Alice Godwin tells the story of how it came to be.

Rachel Feinstein working at the Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg, Munich, 2019. Artwork © Rachel Feinstein

Rachel Feinstein working at the Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg, Munich, 2019. Artwork © Rachel Feinstein

Alice Godwin

Alice Godwin is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Copenhagen. An art history graduate from the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art, she penned an essay for the exhibition catalogue Damien Hirst: Fact Paintings and Fact Sculptures, published by Gagosian in 2022, and has contributed to publications including Wallpaper, Frieze, Aesthetica, and The Brooklyn Rail.

See all Articles

Among the cultivated gardens of Derbyshire’s iconic Chatsworth House, the ancient seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, is an enchanted grotto. This cavern, surrounded by autumnal blossoms, overlooks a pond where fish were once bred. Inside, past heavy boulders and dripping stalactites, lies a sculpture of a female figure by Rachel Feinstein. Standing triumphant, the woman is covered in a dazzling mosaic of color that shines from within the gloomy interior, luminous through the darkness.

Feinstein discovered the grotto during one of her first visits to Chatsworth as Gucci’s inaugural artist in residence at the estate in early 2018, catching a glimpse of the entrance through the mist as if on the wild moors of Heathcliff and Cathy. Later, after falling asleep in the comfort of Chatsworth’s tremendous frescoed sitting room, Feinstein woke with the thought that perhaps she had been dreaming.

Fairy tales, myths, and stories of magical forests and sleeping princesses are the foundation of Feinstein’s work, which focuses on the construction of fantasies and illusion. For this reason, the tragic history of Duchess Georgiana, the wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who built Chatsworth’s grotto in the late 1790s, sparked her curiosity. As Feinstein related in a recent conversation, she was entranced by Georgiana’s political activism and by her flirtations with other women, which led to a scandalous polyamorous relationship between the Duchess, the Duke, and Lady Elizabeth Foster, affectionately known as Bess. As a mother, Feinstein was struck by the accounts of Georgiana’s adulterous affair with Charles Grey and the illegitimate child she bore in exile in France, banished there as punishment for her transgression. Georgiana was so fearful of dying in childbirth that she wrote to the young son she had left behind in England in her own blood, expressing outpourings of love. When the baby was born without complications, Georgiana was forced to give up the infant daughter to her lover’s family, a prospect that Feinstein finds unbearably heart-wrenching.

Rachel Feinstein at Chatsworth

The late-eighteenth-century grotto on the grounds of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

During her residency at Chatsworth, Feinstein worked from the idyllic Swiss Cottage on the grounds, dining each night with the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at the main house. The dreamlike quality of this existence, together with her solitary state, apart from her husband, John Currin, and their children, brings to mind fairy-tale heroines like Sleeping Beauty, lying slumbering under a spell in her castle. Feinstein embodied her own version of this princess in 1994, when she slept in a gingerbread house at a New York gallery overnight. The concept of “happily ever after” and what shadowy secrets might lurk below continues to fascinate Feinstein and to affect her sculptural practice. With Sleeping Beauty, for example, Feinstein discovered that all is not as it seems: the original tale tells the story of a princess falling into an enchanted sleep and becoming impregnated by her prince, before being awakened not by the kiss of true love, but by the new life of her child. Feinstein explores this notion of a concealing façade through the duality between her sculptures’ perfect, gleaming surfaces and their hidden interiors.

The concept of “happily ever after” and what shadowy secrets might lurk below continues to fascinate Feinstein and to affect her sculptural practice.

As Feinstein considered what might come from her time at Chatsworth, she found herself in the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, absorbed by cabinets lined with curiosities. Among a selection of eighteenth-century figurines, a small character called Britannia caught Feinstein’s attention. The Roman personification of the British Isles, the figure was clad in armor, dressed in a helmet and swaths of vibrant material, and positioned atop a scrolled Rococo base beside a watchful lion. Feinstein’s life-size incarnation of Britannia looks closely to this porcelain figurine, taking inspiration from its flushed cheeks and kaleidoscopic clothes, the shield clasped lightly in the figure’s left hand, and its flamboyant base.

Rachel Feinstein at Chatsworth

William Duesbury & Co., Figure (Britannia), c. 1763, soft-paste porcelain, enameled in colors and gilt, height: 14 inches (35.6 cm), Victoria and Albert Museum, London, given by Major General H. G. D. Scott. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rachel Feinstein at Chatsworth

Rachel Feinstein inside the grotto at Chatsworth, 2018

The idea of a colorful life-size sculpture for Chatsworth crystalized when Gucci photographer Samuel Keyte took pictures of Feinstein inside Duchess Georgiana’s grotto. Hoping to use the images as a means to gauge the scale of Britannia, Feinstein was captivated by the sight of the rainbow of tones in the Gucci dress she was wearing in the photographs and knew that her sculpture had to possess the same vitality.

For Feinstein, the subject of color is riddled with oddities. A lively palette, she explains, is often associated with the gaudy and the kitsch. Over centuries, the pure white marble of classical Greek and Roman statues has come to connote high taste, when these sculptures were in fact extraordinarily colorful at the time they were made. Feinstein challenges the reputation bestowed upon color through the false narrative of Western art history by covering Britannia in a cacophony of crimson, cerulean, purple, and orange.

Rendered in glazed majolica, Feinstein’s Britannia was created at the famous Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory in Munich, where the artist has worked on several projects, including her pedestals for Frieze Sculpture 2018 in London, inspired by the commedia dell’arte figures modeled for Nymphenburg by Franz Anton Bustelli in the eighteenth century. The grand traditions of the manufactory and its role in the annals of the royal courts of Europe have drawn Feinstein to Bavaria over and again, each visit cementing her awareness of her own position in history and feeding her captivation with the Rococo and the Baroque. Much like the Chatsworth collection, which traces the lineage of the Dukes of Devonshire back to the sixteenth century in its remarkable array of family portraits and treasures, Feinstein acknowledges the artists who have come before her by collaborating with Nymphenburg and harnessing the historical medium of majolica.

Rachel Feinstein at Chatsworth

Rachel Feinstein, Britannia, 2019, glazed majolica, installation view, Chatsworth, Derbyshire © Rachel Feinstein

The embodiment of the British Isles, the figure of Britannia at Chatsworth House also represents the ideals of womanhood in her strength, agency, and beauty. Feinstein was astonished by Britannia’s serene expression as she came to life at Nymphenburg—a stark contrast to the sculptures inspired by Victoria’s Secret models she had created for her debut exhibition with Gagosian, held in Beverly Hills in 2018. Quite unlike the grotesque and erotic “Angels,” Britannia seems at peace, like a Grecian kore or an idol for worship. Yet it was during the preparation for her Secrets show with Gagosian that Feinstein had the idea to create a full-scale female figure in majolica that could be placed outside.

This residency for the inaugural Gucci Places initiative continues a partnership that began in 2015, when Feinstein was invited to participate in the exhibition No Longer/Not Yet at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai by Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele. It was far from the first time she had strayed into the world of fashion: Feinstein modeled between the ages of fourteen and twenty, and has been the muse of designers including Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. For Feinstein, fashion and art are intricately connected. She argues that perhaps they are the only art forms that can still resonate with a society controlled by an addiction to screens and the need for instant stimulation. Feinstein and Michele share this appreciation for a close relationship between fashion and art, as well as a passion for the Old Masters and a fear that artists and designers alike are not willing to look back to the past enough.

As Feinstein prepares for her first major institutional exhibition, at the Jewish Museum in New York in fall 2019, she finds herself inevitably looking back on her career and on her childhood, spent in Florida during the 1970s and 1980s. With a sense of nostalgia, Feinstein thinks on the strange fantasy of Miami at that time—a place devoid of cultural experience, where Southern rock and Gloria Estefan dominated the radio waves and teenagers would sneak into Disney World at night. She considers how different a life spent at Chatsworth, like that of the Duchess Georgiana, might have been.

Unless otherwise noted, photos: Samuel Keyte, courtesy Gucci

Rachel Feinstein in her studio

Rachel Feinstein: Mirror

Join Rachel Feinstein in her New York studio as she addresses the genesis of her exhibition Mirror in London and the enduring power of religious iconography.

Jean Pigozzi:  An interview with Rachel Feinstein

Jean Pigozzi: An interview with Rachel Feinstein

Famed photographer of the famous, Jean Pigozzi speaks with artist Rachel Feinstein about the publication of his new book, The 213 Most Important Men in My Life, and provides a sneak peek at what’s coming up next. 

Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006), on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2021

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2021

The Summer 2021 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006) on its cover.

Left: Rachel Feinstein, Corine, 2018 © Rachel Feinstein. Photo: Jeff McLane. Right: Ewa Juszkiewicz, Untitled (after Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun), 2021 © Ewa Juszkiewicz

Artist to Artist: Rachel Feinstein and Ewa Juszkiewicz

On the occasion of Frieze New York 2021, the two artists discuss remixing conventions, the allure of Rococo, and the importance of research and history within their respective practices.

Rachel Feinstein in her West 15th Street studio, New York, 2002.

Rachel Feinstein

The artist discusses her life and work with Alan Yentob.

Cover of the Winter 2019 Gagosian Quarterly, featuring a selection from a black-and-white Christopher Wool photograph

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2019

The Winter 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a selection from Christopher Wool’s Westtexaspsychosculpture series on its cover.

Rachel Feinstein: Frieze Sculpture

Rachel Feinstein: Frieze Sculpture

Rachel Feinstein speaks about her outdoor installation for Frieze Sculpture 2018—a set of four majolica sculptures, inspired by Franz Anton Bustelli’s Rococo commedia dell’arte figurines.

Rachel Feinstein Brings Rome to Paris

Rachel Feinstein Brings Rome to Paris

Rachel Feinstein speaks to Gagosian’s Angela Brown about “bringing Rome to Paris,” for her exhibition at Le Mur.

Detail of Lauren Halsey sculpture depicting praying hands, planets, and other symbol against red and green background

Black Futurity: Lessons in (Art) History to Forge a Path Forward

Jon Copes asks, What can Black History Month mean in the year 2024? He looks to a selection of scholars and artists for the answer.

poster for an exhibition with two figures

The Beginning: A Life in Art

Delphine Huisinga and Alison McDonald chart Larry Gagosian’s formative years on the West Coast and contextualize the Los Angeles art scene in the mid-1970s.

Installation view with Douglas Gordon, Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now... (1999–)

Douglas Gordon: To Sing

On the occasion of Douglas Gordon: All I need is a little bit of everything, an exhibition in London, curator Adam Szymczyk recounts his experiences with Gordon’s work across nearly three decades, noting the continuities and evolutions.

A Horse, of Course

A Horse, of Course

Alix Browne considers the enduring presence of horses in the contemporary imagination.