Thomas Gainsborough

The English painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) 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 colored 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.

Further Reading on Thomas Gainsborough

The best illustrated, critical study of Gainsborough's art is Ellis K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough (1958), which includes a catalog. The standard biography is William T. Whitley, Thomas Gainsborough (1915). An excellent short monograph is Mary Woodall, Thomas Gainsborough: His Life and Work (1949).

Additional Biography Sources

Lindsay, Jack, Thomas Gainsborough, his life and art, London; New York: Granada, 1982, 1981.

Potterton, Homan, Reynolds and Gainsborough, London: National Gallery, 1976.

Worman, Isabelle, Thomas Gainsborough: a biography 1727-1788, Lavenham Eng.: T. Dalton, 1976.