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Thomas Gainsborough


The only truly original landscape artist of the period was also one of its greatest portrait painters, Thomas Gainsborough. No other painter applied himself so successfully to both branches of art, though he said that he preferred landscape and only painted portraits for a living.

He was the kind of painter who paints as if by nature. His works have neither the solidity nor the eclectic resourcefulness of Reynolds, and their substance seems often to depend simply on the fluent and lyrical movement of his brush. Unimpressed by the classical masters (he never went to Italy), he turned to two other sources nearer at hand: Dutch landscapes, which were closely attuned to his native East Anglia, and French sensibility, acquired in the circle of Hayman. The first, combined with the detailed observation of nature, can be seen in his early 'Landscape with a Cornfield', the second in more fanciful works like the 'Landscape with Gypsies'.

After he moved to Bath in 1759, and subsequently to London in 1774, the influence of Ruisdael was supplanted by that of another unacademic painter, Rubens, and he painted imaginative landscapes with rustic accessories. Here a sophisticated rhythm of composition and handling replaced the early fresh naturalism which was not to reappear in English art until Constable. Thus his 'Sunset: Carthorses drinking at a Stream', from his early Bath years, shows no trace of the Dutch manner, in which landscape emerges from the careful assemblage of countless small shapes, but is the evocation of the movement of leaves, mass and light filtered through air, with all the economy of means of a painter who has learnt to think in broad effects.

At the same time he made a close study of Van Dyck, and his later portraits show the same diffused light and feathery touch. He had a reputation for catching better likenesses than Reynolds, and portrayed his sitters in a more relaxed manner. In his last ten years, partly under the influence of Murillo, he extracted the genre elements from his landscapes and enlarged them into life size fancy pictures such as the unfinished 'Housemaid'. His unusual talents were brought out by unusual sitters, and his enchanting portrait of the ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, painted for her patron the 3rd Duke of Dorset, is one of the masterpieces of his late period. The same kind of feeling for feminine grace is shown in his more private paintings, like the portraits of his daughters Margaret and Mary.

His ability to regard all creatures with unaffected sympathy extended to a subject that Reynolds, for one, would never have associated himself with - the painting of animals. Gainsborough had a countryman's love of dogs, which frequently enter into his portraits in a completely natural way his 'Pomeranian Bitch and Puppy' is a particularly happy example of his ability to raise them to the level of artistic portraiture. Gainsborough's strength lay in his free and excellent drawing, and many of his paintings give the feeling of the artist thinking with his brush, an immediacy usually reserved for watercolours. It is not surprising that the solemn rulings of the Academy proved unsympathetic to his individual and unrhetorical art, so that in his last years he dissociated himself from it and showed his work only in his studio.

His particular talent could leave no successors, and although there were some imitators of his early landscapes - notably Thomas Barker of Bath - his only pupil and studio assistant was his nephew Gainsborough Dupont, who after his uncle's death continued to work in a manner feebly imitative of him.

- From Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion

Further reading on Gainsborough:

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c. 1770 The Blue Boy
c. 1777 The Hon. Frances Duncombe
1781 Mrs. Peter William Baker

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