United Kingdom • 1727−1788
Thomas Gainsborough (baptized 14 May 1727, Sudbury, Suffolk County – 2 August 1788, London), a painter and engraver, was one of the most prominent and versatile English artists of the 18th century. The artist was famous for his exquisite portraits and idyllic landscapes, which served as models for such landscape masters as  John Constable and William Turner.

Peculiar features of Thomas Gainsborough’s art: Of all 18th-century English artists, Thomas Gainsborough was the most inventive and original, always ready to experiment with new ideas and techniques. However, he complained about his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds: “Damn it, how varied he is!” Despite his huge success as a portraitist, Gainsborough preferred landscapes, although they were unpopular with the public at that time. Unlike Reynolds, he was not a big fan of the academic tradition and mocked the fashion for historical painting. Art historian Mary Woodall called him "an intuitive artist who admired the poetry of colors."

Famous paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: “The Blue Boy”, “Lady in Blue”, “Mr and Mrs Hallett (The Morning Walk)”, “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews”, “Portrait of Mrs Sarah Siddons”.

Gravelot and the Rococo style

Thomas Gainsborough began painting at an early age, and at the age of 13 he persuaded his father to send him to study in London. A ruined wool merchant and a parent with many children, John Gainsborough would hardly have found the money to study his offspring if it weren’t for the tragedy in the family. His brother and nephew were killed under unsolved circumstances, leaving a decent inheritance for their relatives. Uncle Thomas Gainsborough (also, incidentally, Thomas) bequeathed 40 pounds so that the boy would find himself an “easy craft”. This money, according to Mark Bills, director of the Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, allowed the family to send the teenager to London to study with the engraver Hubert Francois Gravelot in 1740.

This Frenchman at that time was an important figure in the artistic circles of London. He gave the student knowledge of the Rococo style, which had a significant impact on the formation of Gainsborough's artistic manner.

In 1746, a 19-year-old man married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who received a £200 annuity. Soon after, the couple moved to Suffolk and in 1752 settled in Ipswich with two daughters. There Gainsborough gained a reputation of a good portraitist and landscape painter, which allowed him to provide for his family.

Dutch teachers

By and large, Gainsborough was self-taught and used to master the art of his favorite landscape painting from the artworks by the 17th century Dutch painters, which by 1740 had become popular with English collectors. His initial works showed a strong influence of Jan Wijnants. For example, in his first dated landscape painting - “Bumper a Bull Terrier” (1745) - many of the elements were taken directly from the compositions of this Dutch painter.

But already in 1748, during the production of “The Cornard Wood” (also known as 'Gainsborough's Forest'), Jacob van Ruisdael became his main “mentor”. Although landscape painting is normally full of naturalistic details, the painter seems to have never created directly in nature. “If Gainsborough planned to paint a landscape, he built a model of the landscape right in his workshop [...] Any materials at hand were involved: twigs, pebbles, sand.”

However, in “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews”, which was produced just a year after the «Bumper a Bull Terrier», Gainsborough showed his own style and at the same time anticipated the realism of the great landscape painter of the next century, John Constable. This work is sometimes called "the most English of all English paintings," and the landscape depicted there is a typical view of Suffolk.

Although Gainsborough preferred landscapes, he understood that for financial reasons he should paint portraits. In his native county, he created several full-length portraits, though rather prim, but surprisingly fully revealing the characters of the sitters. Among them, the "Portrait of William Wollaston" stands separately as being both compositionally pretentious and quite informal in spirit. And the simple naturalism and benevolence of “The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly”, painted in the last years of their stay in Ipswich, make this painting one of the best English children's portraits.

Van Dyck and Rubens

In pursuit of commissions, in 1759 Gainsborough moved to the resort town of Bath, and soon fashionable visitors crowded his studio. The artist, who played well on many instruments, quickly became known in musical and theatrical circles. He also entered many rich houses, where he got acquainted with the paintings of Sir Anthony van Dyck and fell under their charm. The predominant influence of the Flemish master became noticeable in the second half of Gainsborough’s career.

In 1761, the painter sent the “Portrait of Robert Nugent, Earl Nugent” to the Society of Artists, and the following year the first message about his work appeared in the London press. Gainsborough regularly exhibited in London during the 1760s, and in 1768 he became one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Arts. But he never took an active part in the meetings.

Having moved to Bath, the artist had little time for landscapes, and he worked a lot from memory, often painting landscapes by candlelight from his “desktop models”. Since about 1760, Peter Paul Rubens became the “main mentor” of Gainsborough. This is especially noticeable in the richness of color and beautiful creamy pastel shades in the painting "Peasants Returning from Market", as well as in "The Harvest Wagon". Here it manifests itself in the smoothness of the picture and the scale of large beech trees, so different from the squat oaks of Suffolk. This idyllic scene is the perfect combination of reality and imagination. The prototypes of the figures on the wagon were the subjects of “The Descent from the Cross” (1611 - 1614) by Rubens, which Gainsborough copied in the cathedral of Antwerp.

In Bath, Gainsborough had to satisfy more sophisticated clientele and adopt a more formal and elegant style of portraiture. The collective image of the family of Count Pembroke by Van Dyck, which he had copied in the family estate of aristocrats in Wilton was of great help to him. Gainsborough’s most famous painting, The Blue Boy, was probably painted in 1770. Depicting a young man in a suit from the time of Van Dyck, the artist followed the fashion of his time and at the same time paid tribute to his idol.

The influence of Van Dyck is clearly visible in such works as "Portrait of John Campbell, 4th Duke of Argyll" and "Portrait of Commodore the Hon. Augustus Hervey", which could compete with the works of Reynolds. Gainsborough preferred painting his friends rather than public figures, and a number of portraits of the 1760s demonstrated the artist's sense of humor and his fancy for the sitters.

Charlotte, Reynolds and The Three Princesses

In 1774, Gainsborough moved to London, where he was soon spotted by a crowned family. Instead of the official court painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, in 1781, King George III preferred to commission Gainsborough to paint his family portrait. The portrait of «Queen Charlotte» is one of the few in the artist’s work, where there is a curtain in the background. Unlike his contemporaries, Gainsborough did not like draperies.

Making money by painting portraits, the artist did not give up landscapes. In 1783, he made an expedition to the Lake District to personally see the picturesque "wild" places praised by enthusiasts. On his return, Gainsborough painted several mountain views in which there were analogies with the works of Gaspard Dugué, which were widespread in English estates.

In the final years, when Gainsborough was haunted by nostalgia for “good old England”, he painted a series of paintings from peasant life, more idyllic than real, for example, “Cottage Doors”. At the same time, one of the last landscapes, “A Trip to the Market” is less idealized and more naturalistic. By showing the light breaking through massive foliage, the artist anticipated the work of John Constable.

Gainsborough was the only major English portrait painter who devoted much time to landscape sketches. He made a large number of drawings with chalk, pen, watercolor (1, 2), and he always sought to find new paper and new techniques. The painter never sold such sketches and, although many of them are closely related to paintings, they were not sketches in the usual sense, but the works of art on their own.

In 1784, Gainsborough quarreled with the academics, who insisted that the portrait of “Three senior princesses: Charlotte, Augusta and Elizabeth“ should hang at a normal height from the floor. The painter believed that this was too high and would not allow to appreciate the lightness of the strokes and the subtlety of the picture. In protest, he removed all the paintings that he intended to exhibit, and never again showed them at the Academy.

Thomas Gainsborough died of cancer on 2 August 1788, at the age of 61. According to his will, he was buried in the territory of St. Anne's Church in the London Kew region, known for its lush and diverse landscape. This turned out to be the most suitable place for an artist who loved landscapes and became famous for his elegant brush strokes and an extraordinary sense of light.

Constable's Tears

After Gainsborough's death, his eternal rival Joshua Reynolds dedicated his annual lecture to his colleague and students of the Royal Academy. He admitted that "all these strange scratches and dots ... at a certain distance, thanks to some magic, take shape, and all the parts seem to fit into place."

However, it was Reynolds and the standards that he enacted at the Royal Academy which diminished Gainsborough's posthumous reputation. The results of the sales held after his death were disappointing, and the publication of a series of prints was expected to fail. Although later the painter was called one of the founders of the English landscape school, a large retrospective at the British Institute in 1814 did little to fix this situation. Gainsborough’s growing popularity and new recognition of his merits was largely due to the National Gallery in London, which in 1827 and 1830 acquired his “The Watering Place” and “The Market Cart”.

In his lecture at the British Institute on 16 June 1836, John Constable paid tribute to his predecessor with the most moving words: “Gainsborough’s landscapes are soothing, gentle and exciting. The silence of noon, the depth of twilight, the pearly purity of morning dew - all can be found on the canvases of this very benevolent and kind-hearted person. “When we look at them, we have tears in our eyes, and we don’t know what causes them.”

Author: Vlad Maslov

There are significant axioms for the biography of Thomas Gainsborough. For example, this one: the 18th century, the heyday of English painting, produced three great persons. Among them, Hogarth is a realist and a “household man,” Constable is a landscape painter, and Gainsborough is a portrait painter par excellence. It's like that. Gainsborough himself only said that “there is no hell worse than making portraits”, it “made him sick” and sometimes he was “ready to rip his throat with a knife to clean the palette”. Portraits were well sold and exhibited, few people were interested in landscapes. But it was the landscape that Gainsborough considered to be his real vocation.

Any official biography of Thomas Gainsborough will report his father was a cloth merchant. There is a small nuance: in the town of Sudbury in eastern Britain, John Gainsborough had a monopoly on sewing shrouds. He loved his business, even went to exchange experiences to France and Holland, and once on a moonlit night, crossing the border, he scared the customs officer to death when, in response to a request to present his goods, he wrapped himself in a shroud. In the middle of the 17th century, the Parliament adopted a law prescribing sewing shrouds only from English wool, so John and his wife Suzanne were doing fine, and the family was growing. Thomas was their youngest, ninth child. But either the Sudbury people suddenly changed their minds about dying, or the situation changed: when Thomas turned six, the family went bankrupt and did not stay on the street only thanks to a kind relative who bought their house at auction.

Not everyone will endure poverty after years of prosperity. But not the Gainsborough family! All their children were distinguished by intelligence and quick wit. The eldest of them, Jack, designed either an eternal charge for a cuckoo clock, or a self-oscillating cradle, or, like Icarus, tried to fly on wings made of copper. The more practical Humphrey received the Steam Engine Award. Thomas, however, was mainly occupied with how to invent a plausible excuse for the teacher to let him go from the lessons. In the picturesque surroundings of Sudbury, he spent hours sketching hills and valleys, as well as horses, cows, dogs and sheep. They joked that there was not a single group of trees and bushes left in the district that Gainsborough could not reproduce from memory. His younger contemporary and fellow countryman, the great landscape painter Constable, will say: "In Sudbury, I see Gainsborough in any hollow tree and in every hedge."

Gainsborough left home very early - at 13 years old. And since then, he has provided for himself by selling small studies. He also married early - at 18. Margaret, his wife, was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke de Beaufort, and the 200-pound annual rent laid by her father more than once helped the Gainsborough family when it was very tight with commissions.

Gainsborough’s talent can be called a nugget: he never received a systematic art education, although he studied a little in London with the French draftsman Hubert Gravelot. The latter is known for instilling a rococo style on English soil. His apprentice Gainsborough, who became one of England's most virtuoso draftsmen, would use the curved rhythms, characteristic of Rococo, for a long time.

Around 1750, Thomas and Margaret moved to the town of Ipswich. They already had a daughter, Mary, and soon the second would be born - also Margaret, like her mother. A series of paired portraits of the artist’s daughters, performed with great skill and spontaneity, is the best of Gainsborough’s created in Ipswich, and, according to many, the best children's portraits in British painting.

In search of money, the family moved to Bath, a fashionable aristocratic resort. The outgoing and musical Gainsborough quickly found friends among actors, musicians, philanthropists, and idle and wealthy holiday-makers were happy to commission him portraits. There is a story about how a noble customer, taking a picturesque pose in an armchair, demanded that Gainsborough not forget to depict a thoroughbred dimple on his chin. In response to this, the artist replied that he did not intend to depict "neither a nasty dimple, nor the whole damn chin."

In Bath, in addition to a large number of useful contacts, Gainsborough also had a most important meeting of a different kind – that was an acquaintance with Van Dyck's work and the landscapes of late Rubens. Art critics find that they fundamentally transformed the art of the already mature Gainsborough.

Gainsborough's moving to London in the mid-1770s was associated with membership in the Royal Academy of Arts. But in 1784, the artist left it with a scandal. The reason would be a latent rivalry with Joshua Reynolds, a portrait painter, theorist and founder of the Academy, the reason was that the paintings for the exhibition were hung a little higher than Gainsborough requested. The easiest way to call it unreasonable quirks. But in the memoirs of everyone who knew him, the artist remained a humble and considerate person. Obviously, for Gainsborough, the question of the context in which his canvases were placed was extremely important. “I would be glad,” he turned to the customers, “if you hung a picture so that the light would fall on the left ...” Gainsborough always started working in a darkened room so that the details would not distract from the composition, and as soon as the paintings were ready, he let the paintings into the workshop more and more light. It is light that will become Gainsborough’s main know-how. His landscapes and portraits, organically blended into the landscape (and this is Gainsborough’s second “know-how” - a landscape that plays along with the mood of the portrait), is imbued with a special, purely English sensation of light that fuses the objects in the picture into a magical whole.

By the age of 60, Gainsborough had finally achieved popularity: not only portraits, but also landscapes, and even rural things, which he painted with pleasant nostalgia for his childhood in Sudbury, began to be sold for very good money. However, at that time they were still cheaper than the classic Reynolds.

In 1787, Gainsborough unexpectedly predicted his imminent death. Having met the playwright Sheridan, the author of “The School for Scandal” (Gainsborough painted his lovely wife more than once), the artist said: “I have many acquaintances and few friends. I shall die soon. I know it, I feel it. I have less time to live than my looks infer but for this I care not. And as I wish to have one worthy man to accompany me to the grave, I am desirous of bespeaking you. Will you come? Aye or no!” Sheridan could not refuse.

In less than a year, Gainsborough died of cancer. Before his death, he was visited by an eternal rival and opponent Reynolds, and Gainsborough's last words were "We will all be in heaven - and Van Dyck will be with us."

Author: Anna Vcherashnyaya

Go to biography


View all publications


All exhibitions of the artist
View all artist's artworks
Whole feed