Gainsborough’s mature portraits follow Van Dyck in their stylish elegance but like his landscapes are executed in a much looser more ethereal technique which descends from French painting and the work of Watteau (1684–1721) and his successors. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Gainsborough’s popularity among collectors rose through acquisitions by the Rothschilds and the new American plutocracy.
Gainsborough was born in Suffolk and in 1740 left for London where he studied with the engraver Hubert Gravelot (1699–1773) and got to know Hogarth (1697–1764). Returning to Suffolk, he moved to the larger town of Ipswich. There he found a bigger clientele for his portraits, but his landscapes remained harder to sell. His best-known painting of this time is Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (National Gallery, London) shown against a richly colored and prosperous English landscape. The incisive draftsmanship of the sitters and even their coy charm is Hogarthian and the focus on the crops hints at Robert Andrew’s interest in progressive agriculture. At this time Gainsborough painted one of his first pure landscapes, the so-called Gainsborough’s Forest (National Gallery, London), in the manner of the Dutch seventeenth-century artist Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–82). In 1759, he moved to the spa town of Bath where he studied Van Dyck (1599–1641) and attracted more fashionable sitters. His Mrs. Thicknesse (Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati), painted soon after his arrival, is a most elegant performance in the Van Dyck manner and executed with a virtuosity of technique unmatched in England at the time. Another Bath painting is the famous Blue Boy, a life-size portrait of Jonathan Buttle, son of a hardware merchant, dressed in Van Dyck style costume. It has always been regarded as an iconic work and was acquired in the twentieth century by the California railway king Henry Huntington.
Gainsborough moved to London in 1774. His Mrs. Graham (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) and Mrs. John Douglas (Waddesdon Manor, Rothschild Collection) continue the virtuoso style of Mrs. Thicknesse. Unlike Reynolds Gainsborough was more admired for his portraits of women than men but his account of James Christie the Auctioneer (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) is a witty character study of a master salesman. In the double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hallett (National Gallery, London), called The Morning Walk, the couple’s intimacy is enhanced by their informal presentation. More personal are the portraits of family members, kept at home to show off his skills to clients. In later landscapes like the Harvest Wagon (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham) the soft sweeping brush work, echoed in his landscape drawings, unites subject and background into a seamless whole. Towards the end of his life he embarked on a series of sentimental rustic children which he called “fancy pictures” and which strongly recall Murillo (1617–82). Reynolds described one of these, A Girl with Pigs (Private Collection) as the best picture Gainsborough had ever painted.
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Books on Thomas Gainsborough
Hugh Belsey, Thomas Gainsborough: the Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies After Old Masters, New Haven, 2019.
Christoph Martin Vogtherr and Katherina Hoins, ed., Thomas Gainsborough: the Modern Landscape, exh. cat., Hamburg, 2018.
John Hayes, Gainsborough: Paintings and Drawings, London, 1975.
Mary Woodall, ed., The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, Bradford, 1963.