Important Art by Thomas Gainsborough
Amidst the abundance of beautiful trees in the peaceful free woodlands, rural folk are seen moving across a serpentine path that activates the deep stillness of the woods.
Laid out from the left foreground, this alley introduces the viewer to a woodcutter, a worker on a short break from shoveling who is perhaps, conversing with a seated young lady. Upon moving further a man is seen treading along, with a bundle on his back and at a distance is a man riding a horse towards the church that is faintly visible at the end of the trail. On the right side of this road is a pond that quietly runs through the dense trees and foliage.
Gainsborough was perhaps, one of the earliest artists to have conveyed a statement against urban development via a retreat into nature through landscape painting. Having spent his later life in Bath and the city of London, although his desire for the country side never ceased, it seems he hoped for a better quality of rural life when he said, "We must jog on and be content with the jingling of bells, only damn it! I hate the dust! the kicking up of the dust, and being confined in harness to follow the track, while others ride in the wagon, under cover, stretching their legs in the straw at ease, and gazing at green trees and blue skies."
An interesting latest development related to this work is the discovery of a study sketch in 2017 that was one of the twenty-six drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. These were earlier incorrectly attributed to another artist, Sir Edwin Landseer.
This drawing provides an insight into the process of working of the creative mind of the artist in that Gainsborough makes a plan, a perfect blueprint by composing the trees on a grid to help him progress with the final painting based on this schema.
In the middle of the 18th century, a recently married wealthy couple wanted to commemorate their status by commissioning this art work. On the extreme left is Mr. Robert Andrews, while Mrs. Frances Andrews is seated on a bench. They are dressed in the costumes that reflect contemporary English aristocratic life style. Elements in the surrounding landscape of Auberies, Andrews' estate in Sudbury, convey that the vast land in their control is also used for producing wheat and includes a sheep farm. Facility with modern means of farming it seems has provided Mr. Andrews with enough leisure for other pursuits of interest as he is here shown sporting a typical hunting hat and clasps a rifle under his right arm. An elaborate 'Mantua' gown of light blue in which the lady appears was an outfit to be worn for ceremonies at court.
Displaying their opulence, the couple seems to be looking at the spectators as if in a conversation. For, this work can be categorized as a 'conversation piece', a genre of informal group portraits of people in discussion, usually ignorant of the viewer, which was popular in 18th century England. However, this work is unusual and deviates from that tradition in more ways than one, for instance Mr. and Mrs. Andrews are clearly acknowledging the presence of the artist as viewer. Also, Gainsborough aligns the man and wife on to the left to give more space for landscape, unlike such works that emphasized the sitters and placed them in the center. This distinction explains the artist's penchant for landscape on the one hand and yet the importance of portraiture as it was his primary source of income.
Further, there is something uncanny about their facial expression, which has been an issue of debate among art historians and critics. In this regard, critic John Berger opines that the grim faces of the couple was intended by the artist to make a statement about the egoistic attitude of the wealthy landowners. Some others disagree with this explanation due to the fact that the artist knew the duo personally in that Mrs. Andrew's father had helped John Gainsborough when he went bankrupt. This was reason enough for their scornful looks, particularly in the context of a class-conscious society as has been interpreted by author William Vaughn, "in her eyes, Thomas Gainsborough was the son of a charity case. The artist knew those looks this couple were giving him and recorded them with characteristic exactness." The presence of the dog that glances at them not only intensifies their condescension but also adds a pinch of sarcasm.
Any extent of interpretation seems inadequate when confronted with a blank space in the painting. An unfinished area of canvas on the lady's lap where her hands rest heightens the mystery.
As the title suggests, the work portrays Thomas Gainsborough's daughters, five-year old Mary and her three year old sibling, Margaret. It is as if the artist anxiously wanted to capture a moment that was part of a swift movement like chasing a butterfly in which his two charming little daughters were engrossed.
This is one of the earliest of the many portraits featuring his daughters that he painted throughout his career. Gainsborough observed his children with a child-like curiosity and enthusiastically wished to record their precious moments. It is perhaps, for this reason that the portrait here appears to be unfinished like a study that was part of a series of works depicting his children engaged in different activities. One very distinguishing aspect about this work is that, though it seems to be a literal depiction, it unfolds itself to possibilities of metaphorical interpretation. As a child's act of chasing a butterfly could relate to the dangers associated with the pursuit of earthly desires and resultant vanities. From this vantage point, the work stands out as a rare example of allegorical representation in the artist's entire oeuvre.
It becomes evident from this painting that despite being reluctant towards portraiture, Gainsborough excelled in the genre when he painted portraits of people with whom he was emotionally attached. However, later in life when he aspired that his children too should get trained as artists, they rebelled. He expressed his dismay with the attitude of his daughters thus: "But these fine ladies and their tea drinkings, dancings, husband huntings and such will fob me out of the last ten years, and I fear miss getting husbands too."