Thomas Gainsborough vs. Joshua Reynolds: 6 Facts About Their Rivalry

Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds shaped the genre of portraiture, yet they spent their lives constantly at odds with each other.

Feb 18, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

thomas gainsborough joshua reynolds rivalry facts


Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds were both grand masters of English portraiture. Both were exceptionally talented and in high demand, but they seemed unable to agree on anything, believing in opposite things in both life and artistic practice. However, behind snarky remarks and all the dramatic fighting for clients lay deep respect and admiration which both sides refused to admit for too long. Read on to learn more about the two great artists and their unique relationship.


1. Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds Were Polar Opposites 

Self-Portrait of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1787. Source: Royal Academy of Arts, London


The greatest masters of Rococo-era England and the greatest rivals, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds could not be more different. Although the circumstances of each one’s life formed their careers and eventually brought them similar fame, there was an almost unbridgeable gap between them.


Thomas Gainsborough was a son of weavers from East England. Although his family members did not belong to the nobility, they had an income stable enough to send Thomas to study art in London under the guidance of the French engraver Hubert Gravelot. The nature of his native Suffolk County left a lasting mark on Gainsborough’s artistic career. During his lifetime, he never left England and relied on his childhood memories and old drawings while constructing his landscapes. Another crucial source of inspiration for him came from the Flemish art. Gainsborough’s father owned a small collection of Flemish landscapes that the artist would move with him throughout his entire life. Flemish masters like Rubens and van Dyck changed Gainsborough’s perception of portrait, enriching his visual vocabulary of poses, textures, and compositions.


Self-Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA, by Joshua Reynolds, c.1780. Source: Royal Academy of Arts, London


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Joshua Reynolds had a more privileged background, coming from a long line of distinguished clergymen. From his early years, he studied Classical literature and philosophy. He was also introduced to higher social circles, learning their manners and standards. His exposure to the art of the Italian Renaissance became a turning point in his career. Reynolds’ art was deeply rooted in tradition and academism.


2. Both Artists Were Successful

Wooded Upland Landscape by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1783. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


As ironic as it sounds, both artists were known for their exquisite portraiture, but they did not exactly enjoy working on it. Both had their personal favorite genre that they managed to incorporate into some of their commercial works. Raised in Italian tradition, Reynolds felt a particular calling toward history painting with its ancient architecture, draperies, and heroic subjects. At Reynolds’ time, history painting was considered the highest form of art, the genre created by the most skilled artists for the most educated and refined audiences. Portrait, on the contrary, had a reputation as a less valued genre, understandable to wider masses and requiring less skills and knowledge from its creator. Yet, the demand for portraiture was incomparably higher.


Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen by Joshua Reynolds, 1773. Source: Tate, London


A similar thing happened to Gainsborough, yet, unlike his rival who never married, he had a pressing need for money to support his growing family. Gainsborough’s greatest love was landscape, particularly that of his native Suffolk. Just like Reynolds had incorporated elements of draperies and classical compositions into his commercial portraits, Gainsborough indulged in his passion, painting backgrounds filled with woods, rocks, and hills.


3. They Had Different Temperaments

George III by Thomas Gainsborough, 1780-81. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Joshua Reynolds’ early exposure to high society made him the perfect painter for the higher classes, capable of obeying all demands and wishes. The status of an artist as an independent creative force had not been invented yet, and the noble commissioners mostly regarded painters as servants. Charming and polite, Reynolds was perfectly at ease in that environment, managing his business on a mind-blowing scale, working at least fourteen hours a day, and carefully noting every detail and demand that came from his customers. Gainsborough, on the other hand, was impatient, gloomy, and not well-adjusted to self-depreciation in front of the wealthy elites.


George III by Joshua Reynolds, c.1779. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Still, in some ways, Gainsborough offered a much more exclusive experience than his rival. While Reynolds made his workshop a portrait factory, delegating parts of paintings like backgrounds and costumes to his numerous assistants, Gainsborough worked on his own. The only assistant Thomas Gainsborough ever employed was his nephew Gainsborough Dupont, who developed his own painting career later on. Of course, this decision affected the number of commissions Gainsborough was able to take, yet it cemented his reputation as an exclusive painter for a limited group of clients.


Still, despite the seeming non-flexibility of Gainsborough and the client-oriented approach of Reynolds, the former managed to outrun the latter in the most prestigious field of commissions from the Royal Family. According to the protocol, Reynolds’ position as the President of the Royal Academy of Arts made him the official court painter, but King George III and his family preferred to work with Gainsborough.


4. Both Artists Painted Sarah Siddons

Mrs. Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785. Source: The National Gallery, London


The radical difference in the approach of both artists to their subject matter becomes explicitly obvious when we look at their portraits of women. The renowned Joshua Reynolds earned his reputation as an artist perfectly capable of navigating the rules of society and the expectations of his clients. In his time, portraits were not meant to showcase the sitter’s personality or character, instead, they were supposed to serve as a demonstration of status, reputation, and ambition. Reynolds painstakingly worked on hats, fabrics, jewelry, and other attributes of wealth and privilege. His clients always received exactly what they wanted.


Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds, 1789. Source: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London


Gainsborough, on the other hand, was a proponent of a more personal approach, highly innovative at the time and more familiar to us now. Although his women also wore expensive dresses and pearls, their eyes were the most attention-grabbing element of the portraits.


One of the most dramatic illustrations of the difference between Gainsborough and Reynolds was the case of actress Sarah Siddons. Both artists painted Siddons.  Portraits of actors and actresses represented a specific subgenre of art, with more room left for decoration and detail. Actresses were often painted through particular roles or characters with corresponding iconography, poses, and settings. Reynolds’ decision to paint Siddons as a tragic muse was obvious and expected. It depicted her occupation rather than her as a human being. While Gainsborough’s version lacked dramatic light and entertaining elements, it nonetheless focused on the real woman behind the stage.


5. They Approached Art Differently

The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, 1770. Source: Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino


Obviously, the two most important artists constantly competing for the same clients were well aware of each other. While Reynolds nursed his wounded pride after learning about the Royal Family’s preference for Gainsborough, he aimed at establishing himself not only as an artist but as an art theoretician. His views on art and aestheticism mostly relied on his Italian experience. At the core of Reynolds’ beliefs was the idea that everything worth depicting had already been explored and refined by the artists of Antiquity. He was an avid believer in certain unbreakable laws of beauty and harmony deducted from the remains of ancient civilizations.


The Ladies Waldegrave by Joshua Reynolds, c.1780-81. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Gainsborough had a more experimental and lively approach to art. Some Gainsborough experts believe that the iconic Gainsborough painting The Blue Boy, which shows the artist’s nephew in a seventeenth-century costume, was the direct reaction to Reynolds’ stance on color theory. In his speech at the Royal Academy of Arts, Reynolds insisted that the use of blue and green tones should be limited only to small sections of the composition since they stripped the image of its liveliness. Although the speech was given publicly several years after The Blue Boy’s creation, some believe Reynolds might have expressed his views before, triggering Gainsborough’s desire to prove him wrong.


6. Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds’s Rivalry Had A Bittersweet Ending

Romantic Landscape with Sheep in Spring by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1783. Source: Royal Academy of Arts, London


In 1768, both artists became the founding members of the new Royal Academy of Fine Arts, with Reynolds appointed its first President. Gainsborough was at odds with the Academy almost from the start, frequently boycotting his exhibitions. He opposed both Reynolds’ theoretical musings and the organization of collective exhibitions, believing his works were deliberately downplayed on Reynolds’ orders.


Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus by Joshua Reynolds, 1788. Source: Web Gallery of Art


The year 1784 was the final act of Gainsborough’s war with the Academy. During the preparation for the annual exhibition, he was so outraged by the apparent injustice that he removed all his paintings and vowed to never show them on their walls again. Only after the artist’s death did his widow Margaret manage to partially resolve the conflict, donating one of her late husband’s landscapes to the Academy, claiming he asked her to do it in his final moments.


Gainsborough’s death became the final act of his feud with Reynolds as well. Lying on his deathbed, Gainsborough sent his rival a letter, confessing his lifelong admiration and asking for one last meeting. Several months after Gainsborough’s death, Reynolds gave a speech at the Academy, stating that although they were never friends, he mourned the loss of a magnificent and outstanding artist.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.