Thomas Gainsborough

English Rococo Artist

1727 - 1788

Self Portrait of Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was one of the most famous portrait and landscape painters of 18th century Britain.

Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. His father was a weaver involved with the wool trade. At the age of thirteen he impressed his father with his penciling skills so that he let him go to London to study art in 1740. In London he first trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot but eventually became associated with William Hogarth and his school. One of his mentors was Francis Hayman. In those years he contributed to the decoration of what is now the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and the supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens.

In the 1740's, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a 200 Pounds annuity on the couple. The artist's work, then mainly composed of landscape paintings, was not selling very well. He returned to Sudbury in 1748-1749 and concentrated on the painting of portraits.

The Artist's Wife: ca 1758

Gainsborough's wife, the former Margaret Burr (1728-1798) may have been the illegitimate daughter of the duke of Bedford. Gainsborough's early portraits are fresh and delicate, often in the contemporary French manner with a touch of van Dyck.

In 1748 Gainsborough presented The Charterhouse (1748) to the Foundling Hospital, it was a way for the artist to show one of his works, because at that time there were no other possibilities for young artists. In 1746 Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of Duke of Beaufort. His wife brought the family an annuity of 200 Pounds, which enabled him to start his career as a portrait-painter in Ipswich.

The Charterhouse: 1748

Mrs Thomas Gainsborough, nee Margaret Burr: ca 1778

In 1752, he and his family, now including two daughters, moved to Ipswich. Commissions for personal portraits increased, but his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires. He had to borrow against his wife's annuity.

In 1759, Gainsborough and his family moved to Bath. There, he studied portraits by van Dyck and was eventually able to attract a better-paying high society clientele. In 1761, he began to send work to the Society of Arts exhibition in London (now the Royal Society of Arts, of which he was one of the earliest members); and from 1769 on, he submitted works to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions. He selected portraits of well-known or notorious clients in order to attract attention. These exhibitions helped him acquire a national reputation, and he was invited to become one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1769. His relationship with the academy, however, was not an easy one and he stopped exhibiting his paintings there in 1773.

Schomberg House at 87 Pall Mall

In 1774, Gainsborough and his family moved to London to live in Schomberg House, Pall Mall. In 1777, he again began to exhibit his paintings at the Royal Academy, including portraits of contemporary celebrities, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland. Exhibitions of his work continued for the next six years.

The Duke and Duchess of Cumberland: 1783-85

Ann Ford (Mrs Philip Thicknesse): 1781

Twentieth-century accounts of the life and musical activities of Ann Ford, later Mrs Thicknesse (1737-1824), have largely relied on the entry for her in the Victorian Dictionary of National Biography. The rediscovery of a fifty-four-page article on her in Public Characters (London, 1806) has led to a re-evaluation of other sources of information, including her semi-autobiographical novel The School for Fashion (London, 1800), the pamphlets published in the course of her dispute with the Earl of Jersey and her treatises on playing the English guitar and the musical glasses. These throw new light on her musical activities and help us to understand the context and significance of her public concerts in 1760 and 1761. Her public persona and her preference for soft, exotic instruments such as the viola da gamba, the archlute and the guitar are seen as embodying the cult of sensibility, at its height during her period of fame around 1760.

Artist's Daughters with a Cat: 1759-61

This unfinished picture was painted soon after the artist arrived in Bath.

Augustus John, Third Earl of Briston: 1768

As a young man, he entered the Navy, where his promotion was rapid. He distinguished himself in several encounters with the French, and was of great assistance to Admiral Hawke in 1759, although he had returned to England before the Battle of Quiberon Bay in November 1759. Having served with distinction in the West Indies under Rodney, his active life at sea ceased when the Peace of Paris was concluded in February 1763. He was, however, nominally Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean in this year, and was made Vice Admiral of the Blue in January 1778.

Hervey was Member of Parliament for Bury St Edmunds from 1757 to 1763, and, after being for a short time Member for Saltash, again represented Bury St Edmunds from 1768 until he succeeded his brother in the Earldom of Bristol in 1775.

He often took part in debates in Parliament, and was a frequent contributor to periodical literature. Having served as a Lord of the Admiralty from 1771 to 1775 he won some notoriety as an opponent of the Rockingham ministry and a defender of Admiral Keppel. In August 1744 he had been secretly married to Elizabeth Chudleigh (1720-1788), afterwards Duchess of Kingston, but this union was dissolved in 1769. Lord Bristol died leaving no legitimate issue, and having, as far as possible, alienated his property from the title. He was succeeded by his brother.

Carl Friedrich Abel: 1777

Carl Friedrich Abel (1725-87) was a German-born and trained musician and composer, who came to London in 1759 and pursued a successful career in England. For some time he shared a house with Johann Christian Bach, more famous German composer, in 1775 they opened their own concert hall in Hanover Square. Abel was a close friend of Gainsborough. Abel's dog, lying at its owner's feet, was again portrayed by Gainsborough in Pomeranian Bitch and Pup.

Conversation in a Park: ca 1740

This charming picture belongs to Gainsborough's early period, when he was working in London and Suffolk. The theme of the conversation in a park evokes Watteau and his school; it denotes a French influence, which played a considerable part in the formation of the artist - he was in fact a pupil of the French engraver Gravelot at the St Martin's Lane Academy. This picture has been thought to represent Thomas Sandby and his wife. At the Watson sale in 1832, it was described as depicting the artist and his wife. The painter's marriage took place in 1746; a very similar work, Mr and Mrs Andrews, is dated 1748.

The open-air portrait is a familiar theme in the English school, whereas in eighteenth-century France the portrait is usually in an interior. The evocation of nature by the English portrait painters is on the whole conventional; it is quite another matter with Gainsborough, however, who has treated the landscape for its own sake.

Edward Swinburne: 1885

Elizabeth Wrottesley: 1764-65

George Lord Vernon: 1767

Full length portrait with gun-dog of the Hon. George Venables Vernon (1735-1830), later 2nd Lord Vernon. The sitter is leaning against a tree, stroking a spaniel. He was MP for Glamorgan in 1774 and succeeded to the title on his father's death in 1780.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), nee Spencer, wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire was a leader of London's high society. She was a friend of the Prince of Wales and of Charles James Fox, for whose election in 1784 she campaigned.

In 1780, he painted the portraits of King George III and his Queen and afterwards received many royal commissions. This gave him some influence with the Academy and allowed him to dictate the manner in which he wished his work to be exhibited. However, in 1783, he removed his paintings from the forthcoming exhibition and transferred them to Schomberg House.

King George III: 1781

George III (1738-1820), king of Great Britain. He was the first of the House of Hanover to command general respect on becoming sovereign, and at the outset he conciliated all classes of his subjects. In 1761 he married Charlotte Sophia, princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. During the administration of George III's favorite Prime Minister, Lord North, the American colonies, protesting England's attempts at taxation, proclaimed, on the 4th of July, 1776, and, eventually, achieved their independence. The peace treaty was signed in February 1783. George III welcomed the union between Ireland and Great Britain, but refused the proposed Catholic emancipation, which led to the resignation of William Pitt in 1801. In 1810, his favorite child, Princess Amelia, fell dangerously ill; this caused an attack of mental derangement, not the first he had had. In 1811, his eldest son George, Prince of Wales (later George IV) was appointed regent. And till his death, on 29 January 1820, George was hopelessly insane; he also lost his sight. His ailment is now believed to have been caused by porphyria.

Queen Charlotte: ca 1781

In 1784, royal painter Allan Ramsay died and the King was obliged to give the job to Gainsborough's rival and Academy president, Joshua Reynolds, however Gainsborough remained the Royal Family's favorite painter. At his own express wish, he was buried at Saint Anne's Church, Kew, where the Family regularly worshipped.

Joshua Reynolds Self Portrait

Saint Anne's Church, Kew

Drawing of Old Saint Anne's Church, Kew

In his later years, Gainsborough often painted relatively simple, ordinary landscapes. With Richard Wilson, he was one of the originators of the eighteenth-century British landscape school; though simultaneously, in conjunction with Joshua Reynolds, he was the dominant British portraitist of the second half of the 18th century.

Gainsborough painted more from his observations of nature (and human nature) than from any application of formal academic rules. The poetic sensibility of his paintings caused Constable to say, "On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them." He himself said, "I'm sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips (sic) and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease."

An Extensive Landscape With Cattle And A Drover

A Rocky Coastal Scene: 1781

Evening Landscape Peasants and Mounted Figures: ca 1768-71

Fen Bridge Lane: ca 1782

Landscape in Suffolk: ca 1750

Landscape with a Woodcutter and Milkmaid: 1755

Landscape with Cattle: ca 1773

Open Landscape with Mounted Peasants: ca 1773

River Landscape: 1768-70

River Landscape with Rustic Lovers: 1781

The Cottage Door: ca 1778

The Harvest Wagon: 1767

The Mall: 1784

The Watering Place: 1777

The Woodcutters Return: 1772-73

Wooded Landscape with Cattle by a Pool and a Cottage at Evening: 1758-59

His most famous works, such as Portrait of Mrs. Graham; Mary and Margaret: The Painter's Daughters; William Hallett and His Wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen, known as The Morning Walk; and Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, display the unique individuality of his subjects.

Mrs Graham: ca 1755

Mrs Graham: 1777

Painter's Daughters: 1755-56

This is perhaps Gainsborough's earliest portrait of his two daughters Mary and Margaret; some six others are known. Mary was baptized on 3 February 1750 (taking the same name as a daughter who died two years earlier) and Margaret was baptized on 22 August 1751.

The portrait was probably painted in Ipswich in the mid-1750's and left unfinished.

The Painter's Daughters: ca 1758

Mr and Mrs William Hallett: 1785

Instinctive, un-pompous, drawn to music and the theatre more than to literature or history, and to nature more than to anything, Gainsborough continues to enchant us, as the serious Reynolds seldom can. Suffolk-born, like Constable, he also became, within his means and times, a 'natural painter' - albeit of a very different kind. Although he said he wished nothing more than 'to take my Viol de Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips', his feeling for nature encompassed much more than landscape. Children and animals, women and men, everything that dances, shimmers, breathes, whispers or sings, look natural in Gainsborough's enchanted world, so that 'nature' comes to encompass silks and gauzes, ostrich feathers and powdered hair as much as woods and ponds and butterflies. But this rapturous manner of painting, in which all parts of a canvas were worked on together with a flickering brush, only appears in mature works, such as this famous and splendid picture.

In his early years in Sudbury, after his training in London restoring Dutch landscapes and working with a French engraver, Gainsborough's finish was less free. After moving to the resort town of Bath in about 1759, he found a metropolitan clientele, and discovered Van Dyck in country-house collections. Both were to be decisive, and the effects are best judged in his portraits of women sitters, on the scale of life, in which elegance and ease of manner combine with a new, more tender color range and a loosening of paint texture. In 1774 he moved permanently to London, where he built up a great portrait practice, but also began to paint imaginative 'fancy pictures' inspired by Murillo. He never aspired to 'history painting' in the Grand Manner. His poetry resides mainly in his brush, not in compositional inventiveness.

It was surely Gainsborough's own inclination, however, to interpret a formal marriage portrait, for which the sitters probably sat separately, as a parkland promenade. William Hallett was 21 and his wife Elizabeth, nee Stephen, 20 when they solemnly linked arms to walk in step together through life. A Spitz dog paces at their side, right foot forward like theirs, as pale and fluffy as Mrs Hallet is pale and gauzy. Being only a dog with no sense of occasion he pants joyfully hoping for attention. The parkland is a painted backdrop, like those of Victorian photographers, yet it provides a pretext for depicting urban sitters in urban finery as if in the dappled light of a world fresh with dew.

Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher: 1785

James Christie: 1778

A charming and persuasive speaker, James Christie founded the fine arts auction house in London that still bears his name. He was a close friend and neighbor of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted this portrait. Gainsborough depicted the cultivated auctioneer leaning on one of the artist's own landscape paintings and holding a piece of paper in his right hand, perhaps an auction list. Christie wears a sober brown frock suit, a white linen shirt, and a formal wig. On the little finger of his left hand is a signet ring, and two pendant seals dangle from watches worn about his waist. His dress and jewelry befit a cosmopolitan English gentleman of the 1770's.

The Portrait of James Christie hung in a place of honor at Christie's auction house in London until it was sold in 1846. The auction house was a gathering place for collectors, dealers, and fashionable society. The portrait immortalized the auctioneer and perpetuated his association with Gainsborough, who was one of England's most famous portrait painters.

Johann Christian Bach: 1776

He was the eleventh son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and was born in Leipzig, Germany. His father, and possibly also Johann Elias Bach, trained young Johann Christian in music. It is believed that Book II of Johann Sebastian's The Well-Tempered Clavier was written and used for Johann Christian's instruction. Johann Christian served as copyist to his father. On the death of his father in 1750, Johann Christian became the pupil of his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Berlin.

In 1754 he went to Italy where he studied counterpoint under Giovanni Battista Martini, and from 1760 to 1762 held the post of organist at Milan cathedral, for which he wrote two Masses, a Requiem, a Te Deum and other works. Around this time he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism.

He was the only one of Johann Sebastian's sons to write opera in Italian, starting with arias inserted into the operas of others, then pasticcios , the Teatro Regio in Turin commissioned him to write Artaserse, an opera seria that was premiered in 1760. This led to more opera commissions, leading to commissions for the King's Theatre in London, an invitation in 1762 to go there, where he spent the rest of his life. Thus, he is often referred to as the "London Bach". The Milan Cathedral kept his position open, hoping he would return.

For twenty years he was the most popular musician in England. His dramatic works, produced at the King's theatre, were received with great cordiality. The first of these, Orione, was one of the first few musical works to use clarinets. He was appointed music master to the Queen, and his duties included giving music lessons to her and her children, and accompanying on piano, the King playing flute. His concerts, given in partnership with Abel at the Hanover Square rooms, soon became the most fashionable of public entertainments.

During his first years in London, Bach made friends with a very young but very promising musician, Mozart, who was there as part of the endless tours arranged by his father Leopold for the purpose of displaying him as a child prodigy. Many scholars judge that J. C. Bach was one of the most important influences on Mozart, who learned from him how to produce a brilliant and attractive surface texture in his music. This influence can be seen directly in the opening of Mozart's piano sonata in B?flat (KV 315c, the Linz sonata from 1783 - 1784) which very closely resembles that of two sonatas of Bach's which Mozart would have known; and indirectly in Bach's attempt in an early sonata (the C minor piano sonata of the opus 5 set) to more effectively combine the gallant style of his day with fugal music.

Johann Christian Bach died in London on the first day of 1782. Mozart said in a letter to his father that it was "a loss to the musical world".

Johann Christian Fisher: ca 1780

Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800) was an outstanding musician. He was born in Germany at Freiburg-im-Breisgau and played for a time in the court band at Dresden before entering the service of Frederick the Great. On coming to London, where he is first recorded on 2 June 1768, he became a member of Queen Charlotte's Band and played regularly at court. His performance of Handel's fourth oboe concerto during the Handel Commemoration at Westminster Abbey in 1784 gave particular pleasure to George III. Regardless of such successes, he failed in 1786 to secure the post of Master of the King's Band. He collapsed in 1800 while playing in a concert at court and died shortly afterwards.

Fischer was a composer and virtuoso oboist. His two-keyed oboe is visible on the harpsichord-cum-piano against which the musician leans. Fanny Burney praised the 'sweet-flowing, melting celestial notes of Fischer's hautboy,' but the Italian violinist Felice de' Giardini (1716-93) referred to Fischer's 'impudence of tone as no other instrument could contend with.' In the portrait on the chair behind Fischer is a violin, on which he was apparently also an accomplished performer although only in private. The harpsichord-cum-piano, made by Joseph Merlin who came to London from the Netherlands in 1760 and established a successful business in the production of pianofortes, presumably refers to his abilities as a composer, as no doubt do the piles of musical scores.

This portrait of Johann Christian Fischer stands as testimony to Gainsborough's own love of music. The artist preferred the company of actors, artists, dramatists and musicians to that of politicians, writers or scholars, and was himself a talented amateur musician in addition to being a painter. Gainsborough once wrote to William Jackson: 'I'm sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village when I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease.' Yet some of his finest portraits are of musicians and include, in addition to that of Fischer, the composer Karl Friedrich Abel (San Marino, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery) and Johann Christian Bach (Bologna, Museo Civico, Bibliografico Musicale). These two portraits date from the late 1770s, whereas that of Johann Christian Fischer was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780.

Gainsborough seems to have known Fischer while he was still living in Bath (Fischer moved permanently to London in 1774). As early as 1775 Fischer evinced an interest in the artist's elder daughter Mary (1748-1826), whom he married at Saint Ann's Church, Soho, on 21 February 1780. The wedding was agreed to reluctantly by Gainsborough, who, although he admired Fischer as a musician, perhaps hoped that his elder daughter might make a better marriage, and lodged doubts about the musician's character. He wrote to his sister on 23 February 1780: 'I can't say I have any reason to doubt the man's honesty or goodness of heart, as I never heard anyone speak anything amiss of him; and as to his oddities and temper, she must learn to like as she likes his person, for nothing can be altered now. I pray God she may be happy with him and have her health.' The marriage did not last and Mary gradually became insane. Whatever tensions Gainsborough might have been experiencing with regard to Fischer's relationship with his daughter, Gainsborough's portrait is masterly in its compositional sophistication, use of color and sympathetic characterization. It is clear, however, that the likeness has been painted over another portrait which will no doubt be revealed by X-ray. The portrait came into the Royal Collection indirectly. It appears to have been painted for Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon (died 1799), a radical politician and a talented amateur musician, but was sold by his successor. Eventually it was acquired by Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, who in 1809 presented it to his brother, the Prince of Wales (later George IV). Both were admirers of Gainsborough's work.

Squire John Wilkinson: ca 1776

In this austere portrait of Squire John Wilkinson, late Gainsborough is seen at his best. Doubtless due to the sitter's demand, this likeness is relatively restrained; even the setting is less glamorized than usual for the painter's later phase (after 1774). Wilkinson, a manufacturer of cannon and founder of the British iron industry, was known as the 'Great Staffordshire Ironmaster'; he was a self-proclaimed atheist and follower of Tom Paine.

John and Henry Trueman Villebois: ca 1783

John, Fourth Duke of Argyll: 1767

Gainsborough's full-length portrait of 4th Duke of Argyll shows him in his magnificent peer's robes, a perfect subject for the artist's dazzling brushwork. The Duke rests one hand on his coronet and in the other holds the baton of Hereditary Master of the King's Household. He wears the splendid chain of the Order of the Thistle. He inherited the dukedom when he was sixty-seven, having had a distinguished career as a soldier. In 1745 he defended the west of Scotland against Prince Charles Edward Stewart's ('Bonnie Prince Charlie's') forces, and in 1746 succeeded the Duke of Cumberland as commander in Scotland.

John Plampin: ca 1753-55

Lady Alston: ca 1761-62

This work dates from Gainsborough's mature period, when he resided in Bath as a fashionable portrait painter of the aristocracy. Following the elegant Van Dyck tradition, he places the model in a broad landscape background. However, the strong contrasts of the lighting of the figure and the flashing effect achieved on the silk of her dress against the deep, impenetrable forest behind her, make this mysterious and poetic portrait a totally original work.

Lady Anne Hamilton later Duchess of Donegall: ca 1777-80

Lord Ligonier: 1770

Lieutenant General Edward Ligonier, 1st Earl Ligonier KB (1740 - 14 June 1782) was a British soldier and courtier. He was the illegitimate son of Col. Francis Augustus Ligonier, the brother of John Ligonier, 1st Earl Ligonier.

He served with Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick during the Seven Years' War, and was appointed a captain in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. In 1763, he was appointed a royal aide-de-camp, and from 1763 until 1765, he was secretary to the embassy at Madrid. On 12 November 1764, he was appointed a Groom of the Bedchamber to the Duke of Gloucester.

On 6 December 1766, he married Penelope Pitt, daughter of George Pitt, 1st Baron Rivers. Her wanton intrigue with Vittorio Amadeo, Count Alfieri, provoked a duel between her husband and her lover on 7 May 1771, and Ligonier was able to obtain a divorce by Act of Parliament on 7 November 1771. He married Lady Mary Henley, daughter of Robert Henley, 1st Earl of Northington, on 14 December 1773. In the meantime, upon the death of his uncle, the Earl Ligonier in 1770, he became Viscount Ligonier, of Clonmell, which title had been created with a special remainder to him.

He was promoted major general in 1775 and lieutenant general in 1777. On 19 July 1776, he was created Earl Ligonier, of Clonmell, in the Peerage of Ireland. The last honor conferred upon him was an appointment as a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath, on 17 December 1781. He died on 14 June 1782, before he could be installed, and left no posterity.

Lady Ligonier: 1770

Mary, Countess of Howe: 1764

Master John Heathcote: 1770

Gainsborough, who never left England, devised an idiosyncratic style of rapidly improvised brushstrokes of multicolored paint, evident in his Master John Heathcote. This portrait, commissioned as a keepsake by aristocratic parents who recently had lost all their other children to an epidemic, shows the four- or five-year-old boy clutching wild flowers to suggest innocence.

Mr and Mrs Andrews: 1750

Robert Andrews and his wife Frances Mary, nee Carter, were married in 1748, not long before Gainsborough painted their portraits - and that of Auberies, their farm near Sudbury. The church in the background is Saint Peter's, Sudbury, and the tower to the left is that of Lavenham church. The small full-length portrait in an open-air rustic setting is typical of Gainsborough's early works, painted in his native Suffolk after his return from London; the identifiable view is unusual, and may have been specified by the patrons. We must not imagine that they sat together under a tree while Gainsborough set up his easel among the sheaves of corn; their costumes were most likely painted from dressed-up artist's mannequins, which may account for their doll-like appearance, and the landscape would have been studied separately.

This kind of picture, commissioned by people 'who lived in rooms which were neat but not spacious', in Ellis Waterhouse's happy phrase about Gainsborough's contemporary Arthur Devis, was a speciality of painters who were not 'out of the top drawer'. The sitters, or their mannequin stand-ins, are posed in 'genteel attitudes' derived from manuals of manners. The nonchalant Mr Andrews, fortunate possessor of a game license, has his gun under his arm; Mrs Andrews, ramrod straight and neatly composed, may have been meant to hold a book, or, it has been suggested, a bird which her husband has shot. In the event, a reserved space left in her lap has not been filled in with any identifiable object.

Out of these conventional ingredients Gainsborough has composed the most tartly lyrical picture in the history of art. Mr Andrews's satisfaction in his well-kept farmlands is as nothing to the intensity of the painter's feeling for the gold and green of fields and copses, the supple curves of fertile land meeting the stately clouds. The figures stand out brittle against that glorious yet ordered bounty. But how marvelously the acid blue hooped skirt is deployed, almost, but not quite, rhyming with the curved bench back, the pointy silk shoes in sly communion with the bench feet, while Mr Andrews's substantial shoes converse with tree roots. (The faithful gun dog had better watch out for his unshod paws.) More rhymes and assonances link the lines of gun, thighs, dog, calf, coat; a coat tail answers the hanging ribbon of a sun hat; something jaunty in the husband's tricorn catches the corner of his wife's eye. Deep affection and naive artifice combine to create the earliest successful depiction of a truly English idyll.

Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliot: ca 1788

In 1774 Gainsborough moved from Bath to London, and by 1777 he was well established, exhibiting portraits of members of the royal family at the Royal Academy. This full-length of the statuesque Mrs. Elliott—a Scottish lady of great beauty but easy virtue—was apparently commissioned by her lover, the first marquis of Cholmondeley, and was exhibited at the R.A. in 1778. Its elegance, delicate coloring, and fluid handling reflect the influence of Van Dyck.

Mrs Sheridan: 1785-86

Thomas Gainsborough's Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a portrait of a woman in nature - but that phrase implies a distinction that the painting itself does not firmly observe. The sitter is Elizabeth Linley, an old friend of the artist, a singer, a beauty, and wife of the comic playwright Sheridan. But her social identity isn't the picture's focus.

Everything is natural. With loose hair, in loose natural clothing (no corsets or hip bolsters) she is seated on a bench of shrubby rock. Around her, there's a landscape that declares itself as free and uncultivated Nature. A woman of feeling, she is at one with it in spirit and in body.

There's one very conspicuous point of junction. The woman sits under a softly bending tree whose leaves surround her head. A breeze gusts through the scene. Her fluttering locks are given an almost identical profile to the waving foliage that frames them. It is a pictorial simile, likening her blowing hair with the tree's own tresses, linking her mind with the movements of nature. And what species of tree might that be? Don't bother asking. It is merely a generic tree, "some sort of tree". It's not alone. What material is the dress made of? Hair, leaves, cloth, grass, distant clump of sheep - nothing has a definite character.

All is vague - and all is a blur. The way Gainsborough puts his paint on is designed to break down barriers. He fades the hair and the leaves at their edges, blends their textures, and softens all the physical differences between them.

Likewise, the strands of grass in the foreground are echoed by the streaky highlights in the dress - but actually the two phenomena are indistinguishable. The sloping curving skirt is likened to the rising ground in the middle distance, but again there is nothing but their color to tell these two streaky, shimmery areas apart. All is rendered in soft, fluent, semi-transparent flecks and flickers.

The picture is a tissue of similes and echoes, but it's more than that. It doesn't say: A is like B, but of course A is also significantly unlike B. What it says is: A is like B, in fact A is virtually the same as B. At every point, the vagueness of forms and the breakdown of the paint make sure that specifics do not obtrude and distinctions do not arise. Each likeness is an equation. Any counterpoint of differences is suppressed.

Everything diffuses and interfuses - nature, body and mind. The peach of her dress crops up in the leaves and grasses around her, and their greens enter into her shadows, just as the ruffling wind can be imagined to spread and mingle the scents of woman and nature. And this breeze is especially embodied in her gauzy veil as it delicately wafts around her and then dissolves into airy invisibility.

The circulating air provides a natural explanation for the general softening and blurring together of things. It's also the woman's "air", her demeanor, her passionate but dreamy mood, that emanates from her and encircles her, and which blends in turn into the atmosphere of the natural world.

Mrs Thomas Hibbert

Parson's Daughter

Portrait of a Lady in Blue: 1777-79

This portrait, one of Gainsborough's most successful paintings, is the artist's only work in the Hermitage. The refined tonal combinations and the particular of painting - applying very fluid paints in a semi-transparent layer, his rapid strokes made with a fine brush - emphasize the nobility and elegance of the image of the young woman.

Portrait of Colonel John Bullock

Portrait of Henrietta Vernon: 1766-67

Portrait of Mrs Butler
(Penelope Carwardine)

Portrait of the Artist with his Wife and Daughter: ca 1748

This is the only known portrait in which Gainsborough included himself with his family. With him are his wife, Margaret Burr, whom he married in July 1746, and their daughter.

Gainsborough holds in his hand a paper, perhaps once showing a sketch, but now transparent with age, as is the figure of the child. It has been presumed that she must be the Gainsborough's' eldest surviving daughter Mary, born shortly before February 1750.

However, both the style of the background and the evident difficulties Gainsborough had with the proportions of the rather stiff-limbed figures suggest a date closer to 1747-48, when Gainsborough was still working in London. The child may, therefore, be the Gainsborough's' first-born but short-lived daughter, also named Mary, who died in 1748. Her date of birth is so far untraced, but the child in the picture would seem to be around eighteen months old.

The Artist's Daughter Mary: 1777

Gainsborough was very fond of his two daughters and painted them frequently from childhood into their late twenties. Concerned for their future, he took care to ensure that they were well educated, sending them to an exclusive boarding school in Chelsea and tutoring them in drawing and landscape painting. A few years after this portrait was made, Mary entered into a disastrous marriage with the celebrated oboist, Johann Christian Fischer, an associate of her father. In later life she lived with her younger sister Margaret, although by then she suffered from severe mental illness.

Richard Hurd Bishop of Worcester: 1781

This portrait was probably commissioned by Queen Charlotte. It was praised as 'finely executed' when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1781, at the same time as Gainsborough's full-length portraits of the King and Queen. Richard Hurd (1720-1808) was a scholar, a critic praised by Gibbon, and an author whose publications included many sermons, pamphlets and editions of Horace's work. His Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) stand at the start of the Romantic Movement in England. Hurd was made Archdeacon of Gloucester in 1767 and Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in 1774. He was a favorite with the royal family and an ally of the King on the Episcopal bench. In 1776 he was appointed Preceptor, responsible for the education of the King's two eldest sons (the Prince of Wales and Duke of York). Following his appointment as Bishop of Worcester and Clerk of the Closet in 1781, the royal family visited him at Hartlebury Castle and at the Bishop's Palace, Worcester, in August 1788. Hurd turned down the King's offer of the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1790 as 'a charge not suited to his temper and talents'. In the event of a French invasion after war broke out again in 1803, it was to the Bishop's Palace that the King planned to send his family.

In the 1780's Hurd assisted in drawing up the program for Benjamin West's series of paintings illustrating the history of revealed religion for the King's new private chapel at Windsor, a project never realized. According to Horace Walpole, Hurd was 'a gentle, plausible man affecting a singular decorum that endeared him highly to devout old ladies'. In Gainsborough's portrait the ground is left visible in the surround and in the loosely painted white rochet but the confident gaze is from a well-defined face.

The Baillie Family: ca 1784

Group portraits by Gainsborough are relatively rare. This large example shows the London merchant James Baillie (1737-1793), with his wife Colin Campbell, and their four young children. Baillie's wife had been given the Christian name of her father Colin Campbell of Glenure. Although a formal portrait, Gainsborough conveys the sense of an affectionate family. Here Mrs Baillie is seated roughly in the centre of the composition. Standing her youngest child on her knee she appears to be the fulcrum of family life.

The Linley Sisters: 1772

The Linley Sisters, daughters of Thomas Linley, a composer who organized concerts in the Assembly Rooms at Bath. Elizabeth (1754-92), standing on Gainsborough’s painting, was already renowned as a leading soprano - her voice was compared to that of a nightingale. Her admirers dubbed her the ‘saint’ because of her voice and beauty. Mary (1758-87) had just begun her career as a singer. In 1772, Elizabeth eloped with Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) famous playwright, to France where they were married in a small village outside the town of Calais.

The Marsham Children: 1787

In the Rococo period all over Europe Watteau stood as symbol of a new gracefulness and ease: the proof that the painter can tackle apparently flippant subject-matter and yet be a great artist. Watteau's own attitude was soon to matter no longer; he represented something which he might not always have wished to be. His compositions exercised an influence which was perhaps sometimes hardly conscious. A Frenchified grace in genre subjects was attempted everywhere, even in England.

The most personal response to Watteau is in Gainsborough, a great painter who yet seldom painted anything resembling a Watteau subject. Several of Gainsborough's early portraits show him utilizing Watteau's compositions for his sitters. But Gainsborough borrows more than a pose, as his later pictures confirm. It is freedom that exhales from his portraits: the freedom of nature and natural settings is allied to free handling, and the whole expresses the idiosyncratic character of his sitters, so relaxed and yet lively, just like Gainsborough's own nature. The painter who described himself in a letter to a patron as 'but a wild goose at best' was dearly Watteau's cousin, taking the same freedom for the artist as he expressed in his art, and conscious of being the odd man out in ordinary society. Gainsborough, if anyone, was the heir to Watteau's art, but he was not to turn to the 'fancy picture' until late in life; and there would have been little patronage for an English painter producing fetes galantes in preference to portraits.

William Poyntz: 1762

William Wollaston: 1758-59

William Wollaston (1730-1797), a local landowner, was one of Gainsborough's friends in Ipswich, with whom he shared his love for music. He was later, from 1768, Member of Parliament for Ipswich.

The Blue Boy
(Jonathan Buttall): ca 1770

The Blue Boy (ca. 1770) is an oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough that now resides in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. The painting itself is on a fairly large canvas for a portrait that measures 48 inches wide by 70 inches tall. Perhaps Gainsborough's most famous work, it is thought to be a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant. Gainsborough had originally painted something different on the canvas but then decided to paint the portrait of the blue boy over it. It is a historical costume study as well as a portrait: the youth in his 17th-century apparel is regarded as Gainsborough's homage to Anthony Van Dyck, and in particular is very close to Van Dyck's portrait of Charles II as a boy.

It has been said that Gainsborough painted the portrait mainly to prove to his chief rival Joshua Reynolds that it was possible to use blue as the central color of a portrait, but this statement has been discredited: the rumor began circulating after Gainsborough's death and Reynolds had painted portraits in blue long before.

The painting was in Jonathan Buttall's possession until he filed for bankruptcy in 1796. It was bought first by the politician John Nesbitt and then, in 1802, by the portrait painter John Hoppner. In about 1809 The Blue Boy entered the collection of the Earl Grosvenor and remained with his descendants until its sale by the second Duke of Westminster to the dealer Joseph Duveen in 1921. In a move that caused a public outcry in Britain, it was then sold on to the American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington for $182,200 (then a record price for any painting) (According to a mention in the New York Times, dated Nov. 11, 1921, the purchase price was $640,000). Before its departure to California in 1922, The Blue Boy was briefly put on display at the National Gallery where it was seen by 90,000 people; the Gallery's director Charles Holmes was moved to scrawl "Au revoir" on the back of the painting.

Gainsborough's only known assistant was his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont.

Gainsborough Dupont: 1770's

Gainsborough Dupont (1754-94) was the son of Gainsborough's sister, Sarah, and her husband, Philip Dupont, a carpenter in Sudbury. Since 1772 he was Gainsborough's pupil, after his formal apprenticeship was completed he remained with his uncle as a studio assistant. After the uncle's death, he pursued a career as a portrait painter and landscapist; his style was wholly influenced by his uncle's.

Self Portrait: 1787

He died of cancer on 2 August 1788 at the age of 61.

Source: Art Renewal Center

Source: Web Gallery of Art

This page is the work of Senex Magister

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