Thursday, February 5, 2015

Gainsborough, Thomas

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews
oil on canvas
70 x 119 cm
National Gallery, London, United Kingdom

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was, of all the 18th century English painters, the most inventive and original, always prepared to experiment with new ideas and techniques, best known for his portraits. He was the only important English portrait painter to devote much time to landscape drawing. His landscapes are of idyllic scenes. During his last years he also painted seascapes and idealized full-size pictures of rustics and country children. He never sold his drawings and, although many of them are closely related to pictures, they are not studies in the ordinary sense but works of art in their own right.

He was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the youngest son of a cloth merchant. He showed artistic skills at an early age. When he was 13, he persuaded his father to send him to London to study drawing and etching with the French engraver Hubert Gravelot. Gravelot had been a pupil of the great French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose influence on Gainsborough was strong.

Around 1749, he returned to Suffolk and settled in Ipswich, where he lived and worked for a decade. There, his portraits were mainly of local gentry and merchants. In 1759, ambitious to obtain a wider public, he moved to the fashionable spa town of Bath, where his studio was soon thronged with fashionable sitters. He moved in musical and theatrical circles. His passion for music and the stage continued throughout his life. His sitters were now authors, actors and members of high society. As he became famous, he adopted a more formal manner that owed something to Anthony Van Dyck.

In 1768, he was elected a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1774, he moved to London, settling in Schomberg House on Pall Mall where he built a studio in the garden. In 1780, he was commissioned to paint portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte. He became a royal favourite. In 1784, he quarrelled violently with the Royal Academy over the hanging of his pictures. He withdrew them and from then on exhibited his pictures in his own studio. In spite of the demand for portraits, he continued to paint landscapes. He claimed to prefer painting landscapes to portraits, but the latter were much more lucrative and it is for portraits that he is most famous. He died of cancer.