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Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)

( Originally Published 1955 )

British portraitist and landscape painter born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the son of middle-class parents. A precocious boy, at the age of fourteen he was sent by his parents to London. There he seems to have had contact with Francis Hayman, from whom he may derive the English character of his early work-as well as his interest in having a good time. From Hubert Gravelot, the French illustrator and engraver (and friend of Hogarth), he may have derived at least in part his later Watteau-like feathery touch in landscapes. This London period resulted in little that was tangible and at the age of nineteen he was back home. Shortly afterward he married a young girl who had a private income and thereby solved his financial problems. They settled at Ipswich where Gainsborough was able to devote himself to painting portraits of the local gentry as well as landscapes for his own pleasure. In 1759 they moved on to the fashionable resort town of Bath and from this point on, portrait painting, especially of the wellto-do, became his main occupation, although landscape painting remained his real passion. In the country houses of Bath he came into direct contact, presumably for the first time, with the great portraitists of the past. It is from these masters that he learned the use of harmonious color, in particular the Rubens tradition as handed down by van Dyck in his many studies of seventeenth-century English ladies and gentlemen. He was also directly influenced by van Dyck's cool lights and silvery shadows and the silks and satins of the aristocratic sitters that artist had done so well. Gainsbofough became very successful, sending many paintings to London to be exhibited and gaining a reputation there. In 1774 he returned to London, this time as a real rival to the famous Sir Joshua Reynolds, then at the height of his renown.

In London he established himself in a wing of the Schornberg Palace in Pall Mall to receive his elegant clients. He soon became the favorite portraitist of the court and competed regularly with Reynolds at the Academy exhibitions, the latter becoming extremely jealous of his success and brilliant manner. From this period dates his study in blue tonalities, The Blue Boy, a portrait of Master Buttal. Gainsborough had joined the Academy as a founding member in 1768 but broke with the group in 1784 in a quarrel over the hanging of his pictures. The differences with Reynolds were only resolved at Gainsborough's death bed. Although he thought of his portrait work as so much "potboiling," the fact remains that these gracious and charming works, which tell us far more of the personality of the painter than the sitter, have a skill in handling, especially in the atmosphere and the fabrics, that places his art on a very high level. The color harmonies, here and in the landscapes, show a resolution of the problems involved and a final attractiveness that makes him part of a continuous chain leading from Rubens through Watteau and Gainsborough himself, and finally to Renoir. As for the landscapes proper, his real love, they are filled with an atmospheric warmth and poetry unique at the time, although parallel in cultural significance with the work of other landscapists of the period in England. In these works, as in his rustic genre scenes, we feel the relationship with Watteau in the fuzzy quality of the foliage and the blending of the figures with their backgrounds. Above all it is the sense of unreality with which he permeated many of these scenes, especially those done in later life, that relates him to the great French master.

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