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Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, in 1727, the son of John Gainsborough, a cloth merchant. He soon evinced a marked inclination for drawing and in 1740 his father sent him to London to study art. He stayed in London for eight years, working under the rococo portrait-engraver Gravelot; he also became famil­iar with the Flemish tradition of painting, which was highly prized by London art dealers at that time. "Road through Wood, with Boy Resting and Dog", 1747 is a typical 'genre painting', obviously in­fluenced by Ruisdael. In Many aspects this work recalls Constable's "Cornfield".

In 1750 Gainsborough moved to Ipswich where his professional career began in earnest. He executed a great many small-sized portraits as well as landscapes of a decorative nature. In October 1759 Gainsborough moved to Bath. In Bath he became a much sought-after and fashionable artist, portraying the aristocracy, wealthy merchants, artists and men of letters. He no longer pro­duced small paintings but, in the manner of Van Dyck, turned to full-length, life-size portraits. From 1774 to 1788 (the year of his death) Gainsborough lived in London where he divided his time between portraits and pictorial compositions, inspired by Geior-gione, which Reynolds defined as "fancy pictures" ("The Wood Gatherers", 1787). As a self-taught artist, he did not make the tradi­tional grand tour or the ritual journey to Italy, but relied on his own remarkable instinct in painting.

Gainsborough is famous for the elegance of his portraits and his pictures of women in particular have an extreme delicacy and re­finement. As a colourist he has had few rivals among English paint­ers. His best works have those delicate brush strokes which are found in Rubens and Renoir. They are painted in clear and trans­parent tone, in a colour scheme where blue and green predomi­nate.

The particular discovery of Gainsborough was the creation of a form of art in which the sitters and the background merge into a single entity. The landscape is not kept in the background, but in most cases man and nature are fused in a single whole through the atmospheric harmony of mood; he emphasized that the natural background for his characters neither was, nor ought to be, the drawing-room or a reconstruction of historical events, but the changeable and harmonious manifestations of nature, as revealed both in the fleeting moment and in the slowly evolving seasons. In the portrait of "Robert Andrews and Mary, His Wife", for example, the beauty of the green English summer is communicated to the viewer through the sense of well-being and delight which the at­mosphere visibly creates in the sitters. Gainsborough shows the pleasure of resting on a rustic bench in the cool shade of an oak tree, while all around the ripe harvest throbs in a hot atmosphere enveloped by a golden light.

Emphasis is nearly always placed on the season in both the landscapes and the portraits, from the time of Gainsborough's ear­ly works until the years of his late maturity: from the burning sum­mer sun in "Robert Andrews and Mary, His Wife" to the early au­tumn scene in "The Market Cart", painted in 1786—1787, a work penetrated throughout by the richness and warmth of colour of the season, by its scents of drenched earth and marshy undergrowth.

It is because his art does not easily fall within a well-defined the­oretical system that it became a forerunner of the romantic move­ment, with its feeling for nature and the uncertainty and anxiety experienced by sensitive men when confronted with nature: "Mary, Countess Howe" (1765), "The Blue Boy" (1770), "Elizabeth and Mary Linley" (1772), "Mrs. Hamilton Nisbet" (1785).

The marriage portrait "The Morning Walk", painted in 1785, represents the perfection of Gainsborough's later style and goes beyond portraiture to an ideal conception of dignity and grace in the harmony of landscape and figures.

Gainsborough neither had not desired pupils, but his art — ideologically and technically entirely different from that of his ri­val Reynolds — had a considerable influence on the artists of the English school who followed him. The landscapes, especially those of his late manner, anticipate Constable, the marine paintings, Turner. His output includes about eight hundred portraits and more than two hundred landscapes.


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