Published: July 8, 2003
Thomas Gainsborough, surely the most enduringly popular of British painters, is widely admired for his graceful society portraits and his lush pastoral landscapes. In his life and in his art he sought to project an image of effortless accomplishment, reflected in a virtuostic painting style and enormous personal charm. Gainsborough was also highly competitive, held strong opinions on a variety of subjects and was an astute businessman.
These qualities are handsomely showcased in “Thomas Gainsborough, 1717-1788,” an exhibition organized by Tate Britain in association with the National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was on view at the Tate last fall and winter, before traveling to the National Gallery this spring. The exhibition is currently on view at The Museum of Fine Arts through September 14.
With more than 60 paintings and 30 works on paper, this is the first comprehensive show of the artist’s work in more than 20 years and the first Gainsborough retrospective in this country. In illustrating the full range of the artist’s achievements, the curators have made it hard for viewers to choose a preference between noble, refined portraits and sumptuous rural landscapes. The lead curator was Michael Rosenthal, who teaches at England’s University of Warwick and contributed to the first rate, accompanying catalog.
Born in 1727 in Sudbury, East Anglia, Gainsborough was the last of nine children of a woolen merchant. At age 13 he was sent to London to study art and then apprenticed with several painters. His training at St Martin’s Lane Academy, an art school run by the celebrated artist William Hogarth, influenced Gainsborough to look to contemporary life and nature for subjects, rather than conventional historic, literary and religious themes.
For three years after the death of the painter’s father the couple lived in Sudbury, where a number of woodsy, bucolic landscapes attest to Gainsborough’s developing skills and affinity for rural scenes. A lack of portrait commissions — his main bread-and-butter — prompted a 1752 move to the larger city of Ipswich. Gainsborough continued to struggle there, painting landscapes largely for pleasure and turning out rather stiff but increasingly accomplished portraits of local gentry.
A standout among these likenesses is the pleasurably informal depiction of “William Wollaston,” circa 1758, showing the landowner as a gentleman holding his flute, with a sheet of music on his lap. This work reflects an innovative approach to portraiture that Gainsborough would develop as his career unfolded. A finished drawing, “Drover with Calves in a Country Cart,” circa 1754-56, demonstrates his skills with a pencil.
Gainsborough’s career began to take off when, at the age of 32, he relocated the family to the fashionable resort town of Bath. The painter’s burgeoning skills and reputation soon attracted a steady flow of portrait work, commissioned by the aristocracy and well-to-do merchants and industrialists. “From all accounts,” says Deborah Chotner, the National Gallery’s assistant curator of American and British paintings, “the artist’s winning personality helped his business, for he was witty and thoughtful, quite aware of his own value and talents, but without vanity or pretense.”
Emboldened by success, Gainsborough created stronger and more ambitious canvases that augmented his standing even further. In 1768 he was one of only two provincial artists invited to become a founding member of the Royal Academy in London.
While he painted some of his most significant works in Bath, he moved to London in 1774, doubtless to enhance his national reputation and find new patrons. By this time his standing had begun to approach that of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1732-1792), the powerful president of the Royal Academy and England’s most famous painter. “Throughout their careers, the two maintained a respectful rivalry,” according to Chotner. “Gainsborough’s insightful and sensuous likenesses were often compared to Reynolds’ grand and authoritative portraits.”
While he made his living mainly from portraiture, Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting. Filled with imagination and nostalgia for an idyllic British countryside, they offered an alternative to the demands of depicting “damn’d Faces,” he said. Gainsborough executed more than 200 landscapes over the course of his career.
His dark, early rural views, with precisely defined winding paths, tall trees and dramatic skies, reflected his familiarity with Seventeenth Century Dutch landscapists. Somewhat later, he was influenced by the expressive, light-filled vistas of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Some of the latter’s feisty style is echoed in Gainsborough’s “The Harvest Wagon,” 1767. Painted with a lighter palette than previous works, this jolly scene, like so many of the painter’s landscapes, evokes his affinity for the rustic charm of English rural life.
Running through many of Gainsborough’s pastoral paintings is an undercurrent of concern that expanding industrialization and controversial agricultural reform might undermine tranquil, agrarian Britain. A standout example in the exhibition is “Evening Landscape with Peasants Returning from Market,” circa 1768-71, a nostalgic scene so serene that it conveys alarm that such pastoral settings might be altered by changes in agrarian life. As Diane Perkins notes in the exhibition catalog, it “embodies a view of the countryside as a place of beauty and harmony, following the tradition of the Arcadian visions of Claude [Lorraine].”
Gainsborough’s deft handling of light and his lively use of paint is exemplified in one of his most acclaimed canvases, “The Watering Place,” circa 1774-77. Impacted by a Rubens work painted a century and a half earlier, this depiction of the bucolic British countryside was called by Horace Walpole “by far the finest landscape ever painted in England, and equal to the Great Masters.” Although that opinion was widely shared, “The Watering Place,” like most of Gainsborough’s landscapes, remained unsold during his lifetime.
Late in his career the artist added coastal views to his repertoire, such as “Seashore with Fishermen,” circa 1781-82. An animated picture in which intrepid fishermen confront wild seas, this invented scene grew out of sketching trips along the coast. In spite of its quality and appeal, it, too, was not sold in the painter’s lifetime.
Forced to rely on portrait commissions to make a living, Gainsborough employed swirling brushwork, close attention to a sitter’s actual appearance, striking poses and costumes, and insights into personality to achieve remarkable results. His prices were second only to Reynolds for portraiture.
Gainsborough’s specialty became large-scale likenesses featuring informal, sometimes daring, poses, in outdoor settings. He had a particular affinity for strong, occasionally off-beat, females whose shimmering or gaudy outfits he captured with special flourishes.
His lushest, fanciest, but noncontroversial portraits — designed to attract attention — were selected for public display. Many were exhibited early on with the Society of Artists and later at the Royal Academy.
The current show contains numerous sizable, full-length likenesses of noble ladies, dressed to the nines, posed amidst atmospheric landscapes that became a Gainsborough trademark. Notable examples include “Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux,” 1769, and “Lady Briso,” circa 1776. “Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier,” circa 1770, posed indoors with a clear view of skies beyond, was created about the time she was beginning an affair that led to divorce.
Gainsborough depicted Italian ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, 1782, as she danced under a dramatically lit sky. It is, says Franklin Kelly, the National Gallery’s senior curator of American and British paintings, “a tour de force in colors.”
Another highlight is the seated portrait, “Mrs Siddons,” circa 1785, depicting the celebrated English actress, Sarah Siddons, as a well-dressed, determined lady in a domestic setting. There is no hint of her stage career in this compelling, noncommissioned likeness. Gainsborough liked it so much that he kept it, displaying it prominently in his London painting room.
Among the more interesting male portraits is “Edward, Second Viscount Ligonier,” 1770, shown as a redcoat leaning nonchalantly against his large, wistful-looking horse. This work was designed as a pendant to Gainsborough’s depiction of his wife, Penelope. Informality also marks an earlier likeness, “Joshua Grigsby,” circa 1760-65, portrayed with a pensive, thoughtful expression and hat in hand, leaning on a large rock.
Alas, not in the exhibition is “Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy,” circa 1770, the artist’s most famous painting. It is owned by the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens.
This big, iconic picture at first glance appears to depict a youthful nobleman improbably garbed in a bright blue suit. In truth, senior curator at Tate Britain, Martin Postle, observes, “The painting is a parody. The boy in question is not the offspring of an aristocrat but the teenage son of a prosperous Soho ironmonger.” In his book, Thomas Gainsborough, Postle suggests that the masterpiece was mischievously included by the painter in a 1770 exhibition of society portraits, hoping to trigger a reaction. “The Blue Boy,” as it was dubbed by admiring artists, “clearly offered a challenge, not just to Reynolds, but to every one of his fellow portrait painters, to match is own virtuosity,” writes Postle.
The highlight of the double portraits is “Mr and Mrs William Hallett (The Morning Walk),” 1785, in which a young, fashionable couple, recently married and accompanied by their attentive dog, promenade through a woodland setting. A paen to mutual love and affection, this canvas is a real beauty.
“The Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, attended by Lady Elizabeth Luttrell,” circa 1783-85, an oval canvas in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, shows a trio of elegantly costumed aristocrats and their lapdog enjoying the scenic foliage of Windsor Great Park.
By this time Gainsborough must have been aware that he would occupy a special place among the greats of English art. It was a reputation he has maintained since.
Leading the way into the “Golden Age” of British landscape painting and setting a high standard for portraiture, in many ways Gainsborough prefigured the heightened emotional paintings of J.M.W. Turner and the Impressionists.
The current sampling of his achievements demonstrate the reasons for his high standing and bids to ensure it for posterity. After all these years, his art continues to dazzle and appeal.
The exhibition catalog is edited by art historian Michael Rosenthal and Tate curator Martin Myrone; it also includes contributions by a team of Gainsborough authorities. There are commentaries on every work in the retrospective and many others, lavish reproductions, a bibliography and a chronology. The 294-page volume, published by the National Gallery of Art in association with Tate Publishing, is priced at $60 (hardcover) and $45 (softcover).
A smaller book by Tate curator Martin Postle, Thomas Gainsborough, offers a fully illustrated, insightfully written overview of the artist’s career and oeuvre. The 80-page book, published by Princeton University Press in association with Tate, London, sells in softcover for $14.95.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is at 465 Huntington Avenue. For information, 617-267-9300 or visit www.mfa.org.
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