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Thomas Gainsborough
1727 - 1788
 


The English painter Thomas Gainsborough ranks as one of the principal masters and innovators of the English school of landscape painting.
 

 

Thomas Gainsborough was baptized in Sudbury, Suffolk, on May 14, 1727. His father, a substantial cloth merchant, recognized Thomas's precocious artistic gifts and sent him at an early age, possibly 12, to London. Gainsborough was connected with the artists Francis Hayman and Hubert François Gravelot, possibly as apprentice to the former and assistant to the latter. Gainsborough is reported to have copied and restored Dutch landscapes for dealers. At the age of 19 he married Margaret Burr, reputedly a natural daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who is said to have brought him an income of £200 a year.

At the age of 21 Gainsborough was so much admired as a landscape painter that he was invited with the leading artists of the day to present a picture to the Foundling Hospital in London. His painting, The Charterhouse, shows a mature observation of reality and handling of light. From Hayman the scene painter and Gravelot the rococo decorator Gainsborough learned to approach pictorial composition on inventive principles, and the alternation between observation and invention henceforth became the basis of his artistic growth. The two approaches may be illustrated by comparing Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews (ca. 1749), with a deliciously observed Suffolk landscape dappled by sunlight and shadow of cloud, and Henéage Lloyd and His Sister (ca. 1750), shown against a limpid background of stage scenery.

Gainsborough's art after his early London studies falls into three main divisions: the Suffolk period, 1748-1759; the Bath period, 1759-1774; and the years of fame in London, 1774-1788. In Suffolk he combined the charms of the modern conversation piece with those of realistic landscape, thus making a strong appeal to the country gentry. Here too he painted the Suffolk countryside as faithfully and freshly as if he were a Dutch painter reborn in the 18th century.


The Portraits

Gainsborough's move to Bath was a flank attack to secure the patronage of the aristocracy, for he was not yet equipped to challenge Sir Joshua Reynolds in London. At Bath, Gainsborough had splendid opportunities to study Anthony Van Dyck, his central intermediary with the Old Masters and substitute for the grand tour, in the collections at Wilton and other great country houses within reach. Mrs. Philip Thicknesse (1760) is a daring adaptation of Van Dyck's great style to the new mode of rococo informality.

Once Gainsborough had found his model for elevated portraiture in Van Dyck's, he began to borrow attitudes as skillfully as Reynolds, but without any intellectual allusions, his preoccupation being with the visual. The pose of the Blue Boy (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1770 under the title A Young Gentleman) is the reverse of that of the older boy in Van Dyck's George Villiers, 2d Duke of Buckingham, and His Brother Francis. The subject of Gainsborough's painting Jonathan Buttall, was a young man, not a boy, and it is as a haunting study of adolescence that the picture deserves its fame.


The Landscapes

The key to Gainsborough's artistic development is to be found in his practice as a landscape painter. Already at Bath he was conducting curiously modern experiments with materials and techniques, constructing models out of pieces of mirror, stones, cork, coal, lichen, dried weeds, and broccoli; applying a lump of whiting with a pair of tongs; and using a sponge or chalks. He worked on the same canvas in the near-dark, by candlelight, and in bright daylight. His "peep show" of the 1780s (preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) was a contrivance for showing coloured transparencies of landscape in a box lighted by candles.

The transition in Gainsborough's painting to impressionistic abstraction, described by Reynolds as chaos assuming form by a kind of magic, may be followed by comparing the strongly Dutch Gainsborough's Forest (1748) with the Cottage Door (1780), a masterpiece which visually expresses the refinement of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Diana and Actaeon, the ne plus ultra of Gainsborough's abstract style. In this late painting, which was unfinished at the time of his death in London on Aug. 2, 1788, he set out to challenge the old Masters by depicting a subject from classical mythology.

By the last decade of his life Gainsborough had evolved a common artistic language for both his portraits and his landscapes, and the Morning Walk: Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (1785) is as poetically evocative as any of his pictures of cottage life, although the subject is taken from high society. The same impulse to refinement governs his "fancy pictures," or scenes of poetic genre, strongly influenced by the beggar boys and old peasants of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and much admired by Reynolds.
 


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Gainsborough, Thomas (1727–1788), English painter. Rivalling Sir Joshua Reynolds in the field of portraiture, Thomas Gainsborough's career highlights the opportunities available to a painter in eighteenth-century England. After establishing his practice in provincial cities, Gainsborough maintained close connections to the London scene through personal contacts and by regularly displaying his work at exhibition venues. His continued allegiance to the unprofitable genre of landscape painting served as a model for future generations of landscapists, such as John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Born in Sudbury, Suffolk, Gainsborough received his early training from Francis Wynantz, probably a Dutch artist. East Anglia traditionally had close ties to the Low Countries, and Gainsborough's early landscape style reflects this influence.

Gainsborough's father was a failed clothier, who after declaring bankruptcy in 1733 became the local postmaster. Gainsborough, however, was an artistic prodigy, and around 1740 he went to London, where he studied with the French artist Hubert François Gravelot and then with Francis Hayman. Absorbing the French rococo style of Gravelot, Gainsborough also adopted his master's practice of drawing from small-scale dolls. Gravelot returned to Paris in 1745, and it is this year to which Gainsborough's independent practice is usually dated. His independence was further bolstered by his marriage in 1746 to Margaret Burr, who had an annual income of £200, which she received from the duke of Beaufort, assumed to be her natural father.

At the death of his father in 1748 and in pursuit of patronage, Gainsborough established a practice in his native Sudbury. Before leaving London, he completed the roundel The Charterhouse (1748; Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, London) for the Foundling Hospital. In addition, he began his early landscape masterpiece Cornard Wood or Gainsborough's Forest (c. 1746–1747; National Gallery, London). When Alderman Boydell purchased this work in 1788 for 75 guineas, Gainsborough wrote with satisfaction that "it is in some respects a little in the schoolboy stile—but I do not reflect on this without a secret gratification; for as an early instance how strong my inclination stood for Landskip."

Of necessity, however, Gainsborough had to concentrate his practice on portraiture, and in 1752 he moved to Ipswich in order to find a wider clientele. By 1759 he was increasingly travelling farther afield in search of new commissions, and by the end of that year had moved to the spa city of Bath, where he remained until 1773.

Soon after his arrival in Bath, Gainsborough raised his prices to 20 guineas for a head portrait, 40 guineas for a half-length portrait, and 80 guineas for a full-length portrait, suggesting that there was sufficient patronage in the fashionable city for the newcomer as well as the already established William Hoare. The first large work Gainsborough painted in Bath was the full-length portrait of Ann Ford (1760; Cincinnati Art Museum), the future wife of his friend Philip Thicknesse.

Gainsborough's move to Bath coincided with the establishment of annual exhibitions at the Society of Artists in London, and from 1761 onward he sent examples of his full-length portraits, such as Robert Craggs, Earl Nugent (1760; private collection), as well as some of his landscapes, such as The Harvest Wagon (1767; Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham). The strength of his reputation in the London art world was confirmed by his invitation in December 1768 to become a founder-member of the Royal Academy.

Gainsborough articulated his dual love of music and landscape in a letter dated 1769 to his friend William Jackson, the composer and organist of Exeter Cathedral, "I'm sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease." Nevertheless, he continued to paint portraits, and after his 1774 move to London, Gainsborough gained important commissions from the royal family, whose patronage Reynolds was never to attain. Even so, on the death of Allan Ramsay in 1784, Reynolds was named principal painter on the basis of his presidency of the Royal Academy.

Although Gainsborough was appointed to its council the year of his move to London, his relationship with the Royal Academy was uneasy. In 1773 he had objected to the way his paintings were hung at the academy's annual exhibition, and he did not again contribute to the exhibition until 1777. In 1784 he once more complained about the hanging of his portraits; they were returned to him, and he never exhibited at the Royal Academy again. Gainsborough also advised his patrons on the best placement of his portraits, showing his attention to the effect of light on his work. Gainsborough's concern with light and its effects can be seen in his painting technique: Often he would paint by candlelight, as well as with long brushes to achieve distance from the canvas.

On Gainsborough's death in 1788, Reynolds devoted his annual lecture to the students and members of the Royal Academy to his rival, acknowledging that "all those odd scratches and marks . . . by a kind of magick, at a certain distance assumes form, and all the parts seem to drop into their proper places."
 


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English painter, draughtsman and printmaker. He was the contemporary and rival of Joshua Reynolds, who honoured him on 10 December 1788 with a valedictory Discourse (pubd London, 1789), in which he stated: 'If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name.' He went on to consider Gainsborough's portraits, landscapes and fancy pictures within the Old Master tradition, against which, in his view, modern painting had always to match itself. Reynolds was acknowledging a general opinion that Gainsborough was one of the most significant painters of their generation. Less ambitious than Reynolds in his portraits, he nevertheless painted with elegance and virtuosity. He founded his landscape manner largely on the study of northern European artists and developed a very beautiful and often poignant imagery of the British countryside. By the mid-1760s he was making formal allusions to a wide range of previous art, from Rubens and Watteau to, eventually, Claude and Titian. He was as various in his drawings and was among the first to take up the new printmaking techniques of aquatint and soft-ground etching. Because his friend, the musician and painter William Jackson (1730-1803), claimed that Gainsborough detested reading, there has been a tendency to deny him any literacy. He was, nevertheless, as his surviving letters show, verbally adept, extremely witty and highly cultured. He loved music and performed well. He was a person of rapidly changing moods, humorous, brilliant and witty. At the time of his death he was expanding the range of his art, having lived through one of the more complex and creative phases in the history of British painting.

He painted with unmatched skill and bravura; while giving the impression of a kind of holy innocence, he was among the most artistically learned and sophisticated painters of his generation. It has been usual to consider his career in terms of the rivalry with Reynolds that was acknowledged by their contemporaries; while Reynolds maintained an intellectual and academic ideal of art, Gainsborough grounded his imagery on contemporary life, maintaining an aesthetic outlook previously given its most powerful expression by William Hogarth. His portraits, landscapes and subject pictures are only now coming to be studied in all their complexity; having previously been viewed as being isolated from the social, philosophical and ideological currents of their time, they have yet to be fully related to them. It is clear, however, that his landscapes and rural pieces, and some of his portraits, were as significant as Reynolds acknowledged them to be in 1788.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 31 December, 2008