7 Works That Define Thomas Gainsborough’s Legacy

Thomas Gainsborough was famous for his unique skills, his love of dogs, and, ironically, a great disdain for painting portraits.

Jan 30, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
thomas gainsborough works

 

Thomas Gainsborough was a great master of English portraiture who achieved success during his lifetime. Although portrait painting had a practical function in building the status and reputation of the commissioner, Gainsborough managed to widen the borders of tradition, bringing innovation, feeling, and astonishing ethereal beauty into his works. Below are 7 paintings made by the great Thomas Gainsborough that showcase his skill and innovative spirit.

 

1. Thomas Gainsborough’s Homeland: Sudbury, Suffolk

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A Wooded Landscape in Suffolk by Thomas Gainsborough, n.d. Source: Sotheby’s

 

Thomas Gainsborough spent the first decades of his life in Suffolk County in East England. His earliest works featured the views of local nature. As he matured, Gainsborough made a decision to switch to portrait painting in order to earn money for his wife and daughters. Over the years, he would submerge deeper and deeper into the English high society, but his love for rural nature remained in place.

 

During the entirety of his career, Gainsborough would return to Suffolk’s fields, woods, and hills in his works. Many of those he painted just for himself, knowing that his affluent commissioners would not want to pay for pictures of rural settings and peasants. After leaving Sudbury, Gainsborough stopped painting landscapes directly from nature, relying instead on his memory and old sketches. In Gainsborough’s time, the tradition of landscape relied on constructing the idealized version of it based on imperfect elements of reality. In his later years, Gainsborough would take the construction of reality to a new level, arranging on his table small forests made of stones, greens, and cauliflower.

 

2. Dogs Painted as Aristocracy

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Pomeranian Bitch and Puppy by Thomas Gainsborough, 1777. Source: Tate, London

 

Dogs were frequent guests in Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings, often appearing without their owners. The Pomeranians belonged to Carl Friedrich Abel, a prominent violinist and one of Gainsborough’s closest friends. A rumor started by someone close to Abel said that when Gainsborough brought the portrait to his friend, Abel’s dogs started barking at it, believing the painted animals were real. The painting for Abel was not only a sign of sentimentality but a status symbol as well: during that time, a pomeranian was the most expensive and fashionable dog you could own.

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Gainsborough’s love for dogs was evident throughout his entire career. He painted them not as silent status companions of his wealthy commissioners but as models in their own rights, rendering ears and noses in the same careful way as the faces of his clients. Some believe that his love for animals started during his childhood. Gainsborough’s native region of Suffolk had many pastures and, subsequently, shepherd dogs on the premises. Gainsborough’s earliest surviving dog painting referred to his late teens and pictured a bullterrier named Bumper surrounded by an East English landscape.

 

 3. Self-Portraits

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

 

As much as Thomas Gainsborough detested painting portraits, he felt even more aversion towards painting himself. While others saw self-portraiture as the act of expressing artistic self-confidence and promoting their businesses, for Gainsborough, this superficial vanity simply made no sense. Generally, he was indifferent to social rituals and power dynamics in the society around him, which sometimes affected his popularity among the wealthy commissioners who expected artists to behave like their servants.

 

Still, Gainsborough left a few self-portraits during different stages of his life. The latest portrait painted just a year before the artist’s death, showed not only the evolution of his artistic style toward a more Impressionist-like manner but the evolution of his character as well. Compared to a 1759 self-portrait of young Gainsborough, the artist was no longer a romantic young man but a great master who grew accustomed to the world he lived in, although he was not impressed by it.

 

4. Portrait of Elizabeth Moody

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Mrs. Elizabeth Moody with her Sons Samuel and Thomas by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1779-1785. Source: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

 

At the time of Thomas Gainsborough’s artistic career, portrait painting was dynamic, but not in the sense of representation of movement or motion. While the painted figures stood still, they kept living their own lives, changing attire or status symbols.

 

Many of Gainsborough’s clients sent him portraits to repaint dresses that went out of fashion, add newly acquired jewelry, or change hairstyles for more flattering ones. There were, however, more serious reasons for adjusting the work, like childbirth or death. The portrait of Mrs. Elizabeth Moody represented both of these occasions. The original painting presented Elizabeth as a young bride, standing alone and gently touching the string of pearls on her neck.

 

Five years later, she died, leaving her husband—an inconsolable widower and a single father of two sons—alone. As the last gesture of affection, he asked Gainsborough to repaint the work, adding his children to the composition. However, a year later, Mr. Moody remarried, much to the disdain of his children. The family relationship turned so sour that Elizabeth’s youngest son Thomas decided to give the portrait to a public art gallery so that his stepmother would not have it.

 

5. The Artist’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly

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Daughters Chasing a Butterfly by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1756. Source: The National Gallery, London

 

Although Thomas Gainsborough was generally not a big fan of painting people or interacting with them in any way, he certainly enjoyed depicting his family members. His daughters Mary and Margaret were Gainsborough’s favorite models, painted again and again from his early years to maturity. One of his most famous works is the portrait of Mary and Margaret chasing a white butterfly. It shows dynamism, childhood curiosity, and spontaneity, all slightly troubled by the expectation of pain and grievance, as the younger Margaret is just a moment away from grabbing a dangerous thorny plant with her tiny hand.

 

During Gainsborough’s time, the concept of childhood as a happy, carefree, and blessed time of one’s life was only emerging due to the changing lifestyles and social conventions. Prior to that era, in both art and reality, children were regarded as little adults, smaller in size, and temporarily less functional. Apart from social conventions and parental love, the artist might have had a sad reason to paint Mary and Margaret so often. Gainsborough was most likely deeply traumatized by the loss of his first daughter, also named Mary, who died in infancy. Thus, he painted every stage of life of his surviving children with great love and caution, afraid of the dangers his girls might encounter.

 

6. The Blue Boy: Gainsborough’s Masterpiece

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The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, 1770. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The 1770 painting The Blue Boy is one of Gainsborough’s principal masterpieces and the painting that left a significant impact on art. Most experts believe that The Blue Boy is a portrait of Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew and his only known assistant. Dupont grew up to be a fairly successful artist working in a manner similar to that of his uncle.

 

Although the significance of The Blue Boy for the general public has waned over the years, in 1921, it became the most expensive painting in the world, sold to an American railroad magnate Henry Huntington for around $10 million in today’s currency. Some historians believe that Oscar Wilde’s visual aesthetics partially relied on the fashion and the feel of The Blue Boy. The image quickly transgressed the boundaries of traditional masculinity, with the boy in a blue suit becoming a symbol of gender ambiguity and beauty that goes beyond social norms. The famous pop artist Robert Rauschenberg stated that The Blue Boy motivated him to pursue an artistic career.

 

7. Thomas Gainsborough’s Glass Paintings: The Fragile Magic

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Wooded Moonlight Landscape with Pool and Figure at the Door of a Cottage by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1781-82. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

 

Apart from traditional canvas painting, in his later years, Gainsborough worked with reverse glass painting. The artist created an oil paint image on a sheet of glass and then put it in a dark showbox with candles lighting the image from the painted side. The result was an illuminated, lively, and magical painting.

 

Since the viewer had to look at the illuminated glass from its reverse side, the painting process had to be turned backward as well. Gainsborough started by painting highlights and minor details before covering them with a solid background. The artist also manipulated the candlelight—to make it look warmer in some areas of his work, he applied a thin layer of red paint as a base coating. Thomas Gainsborough created a series of ten painted glass panels, which now present great challenges for art conservators. In Gainsborough’s time, glass was much more fragile and reactive to the environment, so the panels now require constant care and limited exposure to the public.

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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.