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Thomas Gainsborough: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

This lesson looks at the work of Thomas Gainsborough, a leading English painter of the eighteenth century. Gainsborough found success as a portrait painter, depicting a world of aristocrats, merchants, and landowners aware of their country's increasing wealth and power. At the same time, Gainsborough's love of landscape painting made him a forerunner of the Romantic movement.

Introduction

Thomas Gainsborough's elegant, effortless style made him one of the most admired painters in eighteenth century England, and later generations have celebrated him as a major figure in the history of English portraiture and landscape. Yet Gainsborough himself struggled with the limitations of his time and place. He preferred to paint landscapes, but that genre of painting was neither well-respected nor very profitable in the England of his day. He turned to portraiture, the genre in greatest demand, primarily as a way of making a living. Taking his stylistic cues from the great seventeenth-century portraitist Anthony van Dyck, he rose to the top of his field, but still felt himself to be in conflict with the artistic establishment of his time.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Morning Walk (Mr. & Mrs. William Hallett), 1785.
Gainsborough, The Morning Walk

Biography

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, in the county of Suffolk, and baptized on May 14, 1727. The son of a weaver and wool merchant, he moved to London to study art while still in his teens. In 1746, he married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of a duke, whose income helped keep the young couple afloat while Gainsborough struggled to find a profitable niche. Gainsborough opened his own studio in Ipswich (near Sudbury) in 1752, specializing in portraits of local notables, but he did not find steady success until he moved his family to the fashionable spa town of Bath in 1759. He also made an intensive study of the works of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), a Flemish painter who had worked in England in the 1640s, and whose works still set the standard in portraiture (more than a hundred years later, patrons still wanted to be painted not only in van Dyck's style, but in the kind of clothes his subjects had worn).

Thomas Gainsborough, mary and Margaret Gainsborough, Daughters of the Artist, 1758.
Thomas Gainsborough, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, Daughters of the Artist

Though England was a prosperous country with a wealthy middle class, it was harder for a painter to make a living in England than in continental Europe. In Catholic countries, the demand for devotional images kept numerous artists employed. The French court at Versailles had created a culture of spectacle and consumption which smaller courts across the continent did their best to imitate, to the benefit of artists on courtly payrolls. Even in the Protestant, business-oriented Netherlands, bourgeois merchants were willing to spend lavishly on still lifes and landscapes, as well as portraits. But in England, there was little demand for paintings other than portraits. A taste for landscapes in the Dutch tradition was slowly making inroads, but in order to make a good living, Gainsborough had to work primarily as a portraitist.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (wife of the playwright & politician), 1785-87.
Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan

From the 1760s onward, Gainsborough steadily built his reputation, exhibiting portraits of well-known personalities at the Royal Society of Art (founded in 1754). He became the favorite painter of the royal family. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts, started in 1768, but had a tense relationship with the academy's first president (and his chief professional rival), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). A more cautious and conservative artist than Gainsborough, Reynolds had strong opinions on artistic theory and the need for rules derived from the study of classic art. Gainsborough designed one of his most famous images, the so-called 'Blue Boy', to disprove one of Reynolds's rules. Gainsborough had a bitter falling-out with the Royal Academy in 1773 and did not exhibit there for four years. He died in London on August 2, 1788.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770.
Gainsborough, The Blue Boy

Paintings

Gainsborough sometimes sought to combine the genres of landscape and portraiture, placing his subjects within a fully realized scene; these latter works were sometimes called 'conversation pieces'. One of Gainsborough's earliest works in that vein, and one of his most famous, is his portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, a wealthy young couple from Sudbury, completed around 1750. The picture is celebrated for the lushly detailed landscape that fills more than half of the canvas, but some scholars see the work as emblematic of the rise of capitalism, suggesting the haughty young pair regard their land as just another form of material wealth. It also shows him still developing as a portraitist -- compare the faces with those of his daughters in the study above.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mr. & Mrs. Andrews, c.1750.
Gainsborough, Portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews

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