Gainsborough, Thomas

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Gainsborough, Thomas (1727-1788): English Painter.

Along with Reynolds, Sir Joshua, Thomas Gainsborough dominated English painting during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Although he himself favored landscape painting and was most influential in the nineteenth century for his work in that genre, Gainsborough made his living as a portraitist, and he is probably best known today for his masterful portraits. Indeed, Gainsborough was the only English painter of the period to make significant contributions in both fields.

Born in Sudbury, Suffolk to a family in the cloth trade, Gainsborough was sent to apprentice with an engraver in London after his father went bankrupt. In London, he studied at the St. Martin’s Lane Academy, a center of artistic innovation started by Hogarth, William. In 1744, he opened his own studio, and in 1746, he married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who had provided her a living. Among his most famous paintings from this period were Conard Wood and The Charterhouse, which was commissioned for the recently opened foundling hospital.

Early in 1749, he returned to Suffolk, first in Sudbury and then moving to Ipswich in 1752. There he painted his famous portrait of Mr and Mrs. Joseph Andrewes in which he captured the sitters balanced by their estate. While in Suffolk, his two surviving daughters were born, a third had died earlier as an infant. In a later painting, he would capture a touching moment of his children chasing a butterfly.

Due to the difficulty of establishing a successful practice in Suffolk, Gainsborough moved to Bath in 1759. In Bath, Gainsborough established himself as one of the portraitist in England with such masterpieces as his portraits of Countess Howe and Ann Ford, depictions of confident and strong-willed women. In 1761, he began to exhibit with the Society of Artists and later became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Over the rest of his life, he both exhibited at and quarreled with the Royal Academy over the hanging of his paintings. In 1772, during his time at Bath, he took on his nephew Gainsborough Dupont as his only apprentice.

In 1774, Gainsborough moved his practice to Schomburg House in Pall Mall in London, where he resided for the rest of his life. In 1780, he painted King George and Queen Charlotte and became the de facto court painter, though when the official position fell vacant in 1784, he was passed over in favor of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Unfortunately, Gainsborough’s personal life was more troubled than his professional, as both of his daughters suffered from mental instability. After a final quarrel with the Royal Academy, he ceased to exhibit there and instead exhibited at his own studio and house in Pall Mall until his death in 1788.

Throughout his life, Gainsborough kept abreast of developments in science and culture and was himself an amateur musician of some ability, performing on several instruments. He was widely respected for his intelligence in art and continually studied the old masters. His early influences were rococo, particularly, Watteau, Antoine, and Dutch naturalism, but he later he turned to Spanish and Flemish painters. An example of the last is his most famous portrait, The Blue Boy (1770), a depiction of an elegant youth in the style of Van Dyck. A deeply religious man from a Dissenting background, Gainsborough was a regular at Chapel who refused to paint on Sunday and was particularly aware of difficulties faced by the lower strata of society.

As a portrait painter, Gainsborough was the foremost master of the grand female portrait, though he was rather less successful with heroic male figures. He did have more success with less grand male figures. Unlike Reynolds who sought to ennoble his sitters, Gainsborough aimed at achieving their likeness, which he captured with sensitivity and sensibility. To that end, he insisted on always painting with the sitter present. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Gainsborough worked without assistance and was responsible for the whole of his paintings. This can be seen most clearly in the attention to detail and care he lavished upon the fabric and folds of his sitters’ clothing.

Gainsborough was most committed to landscape painting beginning with early works, such as the aforementioned Conard Wood. His early landscapes were naturalistic in outlook with a fresh, direct presentation of life in the countryside. Later, his work here became more evocative of mood and feeling, presenting a picture of Arcadian tranquility. In the 1780s, he painted a number of fancy pieces, representations of children and youths in a country setting, which contrasted the simplicity of country life with the agitation of urban settings. Despite the quaint surface appearance of many of these canvasses, however, a closer examination reveals Gainsborough’s sensitivity to the rural poverty and misery of his time, particularly in the dull, hollow eyes of his sitters. His landscapes profoundly influenced such nineteenth century greats as John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.

Further Reading:

John Hayes, Gainsborough: Paintings and Drawings, 1975.

Nicola Kalinsky, Gainsborough, 1995.

William Vaughn, Gainsborough, 2002.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University