One of the most famous artists of Rococo-era England, Thomas Gainsborough continues to mesmerize the public. He was grumpy and impatient, but he also had a deep love for art and his family members, who were his favorite models. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Art, yet rivaled bitterly with its president Joshua Reynolds, fighting for a more liberal and free approach to painting. Read on to learn more about the great English portraitist and his inspirations.
1. Thomas Gainsborough Was a Portrait Painter Who Hated Painting Portraits
Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 in Sudbury, England. His father was a rather well-to-do weaver who was impressed by his son’s talent for drawing. Nothing occupied Gainsborough’s mind more than landscapes and the nature of his native county of Suffolk. Even as a child, he was sketching the fields and forests of his homeland, keeping the albums with him throughout his life.
At the age of nineteen, Gainsborough married Margarett Burr, an illegitimate daughter of a local nobleman. Upon starting a family life of his own, he soon realized that the demand for his landscapes was not enough to provide for the household. Gainsborough needed to find something more practical, so he switched to painting portraits and soon started to offer his services to locals. Neither the portraits nor the people brought him joy, so he found a solution. Every portrait he painted had a detailed background landscape serving as a compromise between Gainsborough’s true calling and financial necessity.
2. Rubens and Van Dyck Were His Idols
Gainsborough’s father owned a small collection of Dutch and Flemish landscapes which his son would keep close to him until his final days. His treatment of landscapes, both as separate works and backgrounds for his portraits, owed a lot to the Dutch tradition. The artist denied neither this influence nor his fascination. He claimed he would gladly exchange any of his paintings for the smallest of Flemish landscapes without hesitation.
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In 1759, aiming to grow his artistic enterprise, Gainsborough moved his family to Bath, a fashionable city occupied by affluent and noble Englishmen. There, in the houses of his respectable commissioners, Gainsborough discovered the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. The Bath years would become important for Gainsborough’s career since he radically changed his approach to portraiture and rendering of skin, hands, and poses here.
Gainsborough sometimes left small homages to his idols in his works. For instance, in a renowned portrait The Blue Boy, the artist’s nephew Gainsborough Dupont was posing in a seventeenth-century similar to those worn by the characters of Anthony van Dyck. Most experts believe the painting was a sample image made to demonstrate Gainsborough’s exceptional skills for his clients.
3. He Was Innovative
Respected and established artist Thomas Gainsborough did not shy away from unconventional methods. His love for painting landscapes remained with him throughout his whole life, yet he was unable to paint them from nature after leaving his native Suffolk. Other places just did not seem as magical to Gainsborough as his home. For years, he painted nature either from memory or from his old sketches, until he came up with a solution. He constructed a table from two mirrors, one placed horizontally and the other vertically, and arranged his dreamy landscapes on it from everything he could find. Broccoli and cauliflower served as trees, while lumps of coal were turned into hills and mountains.
Another unusual feature of Gainsborough was his work with painted glass. This medium was relatively popular among other artists. The images were painted in reverse, building layers from highlights to background, and backlit with a candle. Gainsborough’s innovation was to construct a closed box similar to a camera obscura to showcase his glass panels. The dark enclosed space gave extra volume to his works, turning them into magical scenes full of light and subtle tones.
4. He Envisioned Impressionism a Century Before It Happened
Although Gainsborough achieved considerable success during his lifetime, many art historians believe he was born just a bit early for his contemporaries to truly understand him. During the eighteenth century, portrait painting was a status symbol and a luxury, demonstrating the achievements and ambitions of the commissioner. Excessive emotion or movement had no place in the composition, with figures standing still and demonstrating medals and jewelry instead of character.
Gainsborough was there to challenge these ideas. Although his portraits show expensive draped fabrics, pearls, and embroidery, he had a much deeper interest in his characters and their personalities. His figures move, dance, and freeze just for a fleeting moment before taking their next step. This dynamism, combined with Gainsborough’s signature play with tones and light, would have been much more appropriate for an Impressionist painting, rather than an official eighteenth-century portrait.
5. His Daughters Margaret and Mary Were His Favorite Models
Of all the people in Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits, two appeared again and again throughout the years. If there was any kind of portrait he was actually glad to paint, it was one of his two daughters, Mary and Margaret. The sisters had a close and loving relationship, as the unfinished painting of the two sisters shows. The serenity of the image contrasts with the sketched silhouette of a writhing cat on Mary’s hands, suggesting the mischievous and lively characters of the girls, who managed to sit still just for a short while.
Thomas Gainsborough was a rather progressive man. He insisted that his daughters learn about ways to provide for themselves and do something with their lives rather than simply socialize in the right circles. He taught them painting and music, hoping they become professionals and not just wives and mothers.
Unfortunately, the lives of Mary and Margaret did not go the way their father expected. Mary married a musician in her early thirties, which was considered unforgivably late at the time, but returned home less than a year later, as their union turned out to be full of neglect, abuse, and her husband’s infidelity. Even though Mary’s husband was an acquaintance of Thomas Gainsborough, he did not approve of this marriage since he knew the man was deceitful and prone to cheating. Later, Mary developed an unspecified mental illness and Margaret became her nurse.
6. He Wasn’t Afraid of Provocations
As twenty-first-century art lovers, we are usually attracted to the stories of tormented and misunderstood artists. We are drawn to the questionable, the provocative, and the ambiguous. We love to feel sorry for the poor misunderstood artist like Van Gogh or Modigliani, who were born too early to achieve success during their lifetime. In that sense, Thomas Gainsborough, the successful businessman, at first glance does not seem to be a sympathetic character. Although his artistic innovations were obvious, he kept them within the borders of what was acceptable. For a present-day viewer raised with an understanding of art as an individualistic expression of a troubled and wandering soul, Gainsborough’s world may seem too refined and privileged.
Although Gainsborough’s enterprise functioned according to the laws of his century, he allowed himself to be provocative from time to time. One of his most scandalous works was the portrait of Ann Ford, the notorious actress and musician. Ford’s performances attracted crowds not only because of her obvious talent but also because of her scandalous status. During that time, a woman performer seemed barely more respectable than a sex worker. Ford’s father, ashamed of her choices, forcefully removed Anne from her own concerts several times. Gainsborough, an amateur musician himself, respected Ford’s determination and painted her in a pose reserved for male sitters of considerable status rather than an infamous actress.
7. Thomas Gainsborough’s Rivalry With Joshua Reynolds Became Legendary
Despite Gainsborough’s limited patience for people, he nonetheless earned his reputation as a professional and competent artist capable of making administrative decisions aside from his day-to-day occupation. Along with other accomplished English, Italian, and French painters of the time, Gainsborough became the founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. The Academy provided art education and served as an institution for the development and popularization of various types of art in England.
Joshua Reynolds, appointed president of the Academy by King George III, was another distinguished portraitist and the only rival of Gainsborough. Reynolds was an exceptionally talented artist who, unlike Gainsborough, gave his clients exactly what they wanted. From the Academy’s tribune, Reynolds warned against bold artistic innovation and advocated for strict rules of line and color.. Moreover, the conservative Reynolds and the experimental Gainsborough often found themselves fighting for the same clients, including the members of the Royal Family.
In 1788, Thomas Gainsborough died from cancer surrounded by his family. On his deathbed, he sent a letter to Reynolds, finally confessing his lifelong love and respect to his greatest rival, asking him for a visit before it was too late. The details of the meeting remain unknown, but in the face of death, their mutual admiration came to light.