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Thomas Gainsborough - Biography and Legacy

British Painter

Born: May 14, 1727 - Sudbury, England
Died: August 2, 1788 - London, England

Biography of Thomas Gainsborough

Childhood and Education

Thomas Gainsborough was the youngest son of John and Mary Gainsborough. Of his ten siblings, it was Thomas who had shown interest in painting early in life. His desire for portraiture and landscapes began to surface when he was barely ten years old. Knowledge of textures and fabrics that he had gained by observing textiles in the cloth industry where his father worked, as a weaver and wool handler, was put to best use by him for the costumes of his portrait subjects.

Childhood, for the artist, was not idealistic in that his father's fortune in business began to fail in 1733 when he went bankrupt and was forced to take up a job as a postmaster. At this time even his older brother, known as "scheming Jack", was unstable as well as working on unsuccessful inventions and relying on his siblings to support his plans. Then, the family had to depend on a wealthy cousin's mercy and help in order to continue living in their comfortable home.

As he grew up, Gainsborough would turn to his other, more reliable siblings, his elder sisters Sarah and Mary who were milliners and his Methodist Minister brother Humphrey for familial support. His brother was inclined to become a man of faith when he was young as his mother Mary's family was anchored in Methodism and the artist once famously stated "I generally view my works on a Sunday thereupon, I never touch."

Early Training

The Gainsborough House, childhood home of artist and now a museum and gallery. Located in Sudbury, Suffolk, England

Gainsborough's formal training in art began in 1740, when his father sent him to London to study under the tutelage of artist Hubert François Gravelot. Rooted in Rococo tradition, Gravelot's drawings and engravings were highly refined. Having been familiarized with the Rococo style of art, Gainsborough eventually enrolled at the tuition-free academy in St. Martin's Lane where he was taught by the school's leader, William Hogarth. Knowledge that he acquired here had a lasting impact on his career as an artist.

Following a successful beginning when he was just seventeen in 1744, he was able to establish a studio in London. By 1746 he was working on commissioned projects from home. His career prospered further that year due to his marriage with an independently wealthy bride who was an illegitimate daughter of the third Duke of Beaufort. As such she was entitled for an annuity that brought stability to the artist and allowed him to pursue his work unencumbered.

In 1749, upon moving to Suffolk with his wife, Gainsborough painted many canvases depicting friends and family including his wife and children in addition to portrait commissions. In one such portrait of his daughters, Mary, born in 1750 (his first child with the same name died in infancy about two years earlier) and Margaret, who was born in 1752 are shown at play. Although, he was not very passionate about portraiture, he liked to study animal forms and often included pets with their masters in portraits.

When he moved to Ipswich in 1752, his career further propelled as he began to receive important commissions from the aristocracy. Owing to his strong interest in music, he opted for membership in the Ipswich Music Club, which helped his profession by bringing in new friends and commissions. His friendship with Captain Philip Thicknesse, a witty writer, resulted in an early anecdote of his talent to create effects of trompe l'oeil. As Thicknesse wrote: "One day while taking a stroll in the country I was struck by what appeared to be a sad man leaning against a garden wall. Upon approaching closer, I realized that it was a painting made by Gainsborough to trick those who passed by".

Mature Period

Gainsborough's career truly flourished when he relocated to Bath in 1759. Practice of portraiture won him accolades of important commissions from the aristocratic and elite residents of the town. It was an encouragement to the artist who until then could not wholeheartedly appreciate portraiture as a genre. But now, he began to learn more about it from the works of Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony van Dyke. In his portraits of these high society clients, he incorporated intricate details of contemporary fashion and clothing, recalling his family's association with the textile industry. With relation to portraits of women, Gainsborough took extra care to imbue characteristics of humanity and tenderness as well as a sense of covert sensuousness, which perhaps was due to his affinity with and appreciation for the works of Peter Paul Rubens.

Even as he gained reputation through portraits, his true passion for landscapes continued. His excellence in this genre can be discerned throughout his career and he painted more than one hundred such works after arriving in Bath. According to the artist, he painted "portraits for money, and landscapes because he loved them". He wanted to be considered first and foremost as a landscape painter. Having developed a unique style in this field of painting, he became a leader of the distinct British School of landscape art.

Gainsborough's success as an artist was largely due to his innovative technique along with an individualistic approach to subject matter that differentiated him from his peers and staunch rivals. He was an unrelenting soul, constantly in search of new ways of art making or seeking to improvise the existing methods. In this regard, he explored the effects of chiaroscuro using candlelight. He developed a light box, a device that could be used to view shadows and transparencies while painting his subjects. Further, color rendered in loose brushstrokes that offered a better view from an appropriate distance was his specialty. For, he felt that it was important for the spectators to gauge the effort that went into the making of an artwork; he referred to this as "the touch of the pencil". This idea and its associated technical breakthrough is a precursor to the aesthetic innovations of early modern artists such as, the Impressionists.

From about 1761 he began to send his works to the Society of Arts exhibition, which is now the Royal Society of Arts, in London. Gainsborough was one of the earliest members of this Society. The following year a press review of his work appeared in the London press. He was invited to become a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. His participation in the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions since then gained him a national reputation.

A serious illness befell the artist in 1763, which would weaken his health for the rest of his life. This condition is believed to be the consequence of his dalliances with women about which he admitted (quite derogatorily) that he was "deeply schooled in petticoats,". In all probability then, he had contacted a venereal disease. In spite of this, his loyal and dedicated wife nursed him through this. What followed was a very brief phase of self-reproach: in one reflective instance he wrote: "I shall never be a quarter good enough for her if I mend a hundred degrees."

Later Period

By 1774 when Gainsborough moved to London, he had approached the last years of his career. The practice that he began in London was at a location within a convenient proximity to St. James' Place and the residences of many members of the aristocracy. The artist eventually settled in the part of Schomberg House in Pall Mall where he established his studio and a gallery to exhibit his works. His neighbor James Christie, the founder of Christie's Auction House, became a close friend. Their friendship was also of mutual benefit professionally in that Gainsborough had an opportunity to paint the auctioneer's portrait and he in turn received expert advice on the paintings he was working on.

Living and working in this part of London also made his works noticeable by the Royal Family along with King George III, who not only admired his paintings but also preferred him over his arch rival, Joshua Reynolds, for a commission to paint the King and Queen. In fact Queen Charlotte liked the artist so much that she owned twenty-two of his works on paper. Gainsborough cherished this court patronage and also came to be known as "Apollo of the Palace." Although he remained a favorite painter of the Royal Family, in 1784 when Allan Ramsay, the court painter died, the King appointed Joshua Reynolds to the position leading to a friction in the relationship between him and the sovereigns. His rivalry with Reynolds also brought him in conflict with the Royal Academy, as the latter was also the Academy's President. Consequently, Gainsborough withdrew from exhibitions on more than one occasion when his instructions regarding the way he wanted his works to be hung were not followed.

Personal disappointments and tragedies marked the last phase of Gainsborough's life.

Ladies in his family disapproved moving to London and as a result his wife fell into depression and his daughters began behaving in an unstable manner. His daughter, Mary eloped with a German musician, Johann Christian Fischer, only to return in six months as her marriage was short lived due to his unpleasant nature. Gainsborough was deeply saddened when his daughter eventually became mentally unsound.

When the artist sensed an aberration in his neck in 1785, it was diagnosed as cancer. Gainsborough however, euphemistically referred to it as "Lieutenant Colonel" as it commanded and took control over his life. Realizing the imminence of death, his artistic urge propelled him to make the most out of the fading time. What followed was the creation of his two great masterpieces, Market Cart (1786) and The Woodman (1787) (now lost). The artist passed away in 1788 at the age of sixty-one and was buried according to his wish at his family church of St. Anne at Kew.

The Legacy of Thomas Gainsborough

Within his country, Thomas Gainsborough contributed to the development of a national approach to subject matter and as such became one of the founders of the British School of art. Allan Cunningham wrote on this aspect in his book The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters thus, "A deep human sympathy unites us with his pencil, and this is not lessened because all his works are stamped with the image of old England; his paintings have a national look." Unique as he was with his ground breaking approach to subject matter, he has helped shape and influence the work of modern artists including James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable. In this connection Constable once stated that, "I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree" of his paintings.

William Vaughan described his art making approach as "spontaneous and intuitive side of his art", which get reflected through the nuances of expression in portraiture and in the loose suggestive brushstrokes that animate his landscapes. His discerning ways were fully grasped and recognized only in the later decades in the course of development of modern art. Critic Roger Fry, for instance, has identified him as one of the artists who laid foundation for the early modernist movement of Impressionism.

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rohini Iyengar

"Thomas Gainsborough Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rohini Iyengar
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First published on 24 Nov 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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