Thomas Gainsborough and the British Landscape School

Thomas Gainsborough: Road to Market

Thomas Gainsborough: Road to Market

On May 14, 1727, English portrait and landscape painter, draughtsman, and printmaker Thomas Gainsborough was baptized. Gainsborough became the dominant British portraitist of the second half of the 18th century. He painted quickly, and the works of his maturity are characterized by a light palette and easy strokes. He preferred landscapes to portraits, and is credited as one of the originator of the 18th-century British landscape school.

Thomas Gainsborough, Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas

Thomas Gainsborough, Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas

Thomas Gainsborough probably began painting smaller landscapes and heads when he was about 10 years old. Gainsborough moved to London in 1740, where he studied art and was trained by the engraver Hubert Gravelot. During that period, Gainsborough was further influenced by the school of William Hogarth and he assisted Francis Hayman in the decoration of the supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens. Gainsborough and his family moved to Bath in 1759. There, he sent his works to the Society of Arts exhibition in London and starting from 1769, he submitted works to the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions. Even though these exhibitions helped him acquire a national reputation, Gainsborough’s relationship with the academy was not easy.

Back in London, Thomas Gainsborough exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy, including portraits of contemporary celebrities, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland. Probably during the 1770s, Gainsborough started to experiment with printmaking using the then-novel techniques of aquatint and soft-ground etching. Later on, his pictures were characterized by a light palette and easy strokes.

Back then, Gainsborough also started to develop portraits in which the individual was integrated into a landscape. For instance, Frances Browne, Mrs John Douglas is one of Gainsborough’s best known examples of these kind of pictures. In it, the sitter has withdrawn to a secluded and overgrown corner of a garden to read a letter, her pose recalling the traditional representation of Melancholy. Gainsborough emphasized the relationship between Mrs Douglas and her environment by painting the clouds behind her and the drapery billowing across her lap with similar silvery mauves and fluid brushstrokes.

Gainsborough’s influence increased during the 1780s when he received several royal commissions, e.g. painting portraits of King George III. During his later years, Gainsborough painted mostly landscapes and he became known for using the so called ‘Showbox‘ device in order to compose landscapes and display them backlit on glass.

It is believed that Gainsborough’s enthusiasm for landscapes is shown in the way he merged figures of the portraits with the scenes behind them. He further once said, “I’m sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips (sic) and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease”. Often, Gainsborough’s landscapes were painted at candlelight, using a tabletop arrangement of stones, pieces of mirrors, broccoli, and the like as a model.

Thomas Gainsborough died of cancer on 2 August 1788 at the age of 61.

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