Thomas Gainsborough was an English draughtsman, printmaker, as well as a portrait and landscape painter. Along with Sir Joshua Reynolds, and right after William Hogarth, Gainsborough is among the most influential British artists, working during a time where Britain’s art was still finding its voice and building a tradition. His artwork is most noteworthy for the way he merged his portraits with landscape painting, quite groundbreaking at the time. Part of the bucolic tone explored by artists such as John Constable was influenced by Gainsborough’s work.
Thomas Gainsborough was born as the youngest son in the city of Sudbury in 1727, county of Suffolk, England. His father was John Gainsborough, was a weaver who made woolen goods. His mother was the master of the grammar school of Sudbury. She painted as a hobby, which undoubtedly influenced her son. One of his brothers, Humphrey Gainsborough, was a notable inventor. Thomas spent his childhood in a house today known as Gainsborough’s House, presently a museum. It has been open to the public for visitation since 1961.
His abilities were noticed at a very young age, and his father was impressed by his artistic skills. By the age of 10, he'd already accomplished several paintings, including a self-portrait. At only 13 years old, his parents allowed him to leave home and go to London as Thomas had convinced his father that he could make a career as an artist.
In the British capital, he became the apprentice of the engraver Hubert Gravelot and associated with William Hogarth’s school. Gravelot was an important influence on the young artist, teaching about Rococo's visuality and imagery. Some historians dispute that Gainsborough studied under Hogarth himself, but there is not enough evidence to support that.
By 1744, when he was only seventeen, the artist was working in his shop. Gainsborough married one of the Duke of Beaufort’s illegitimate daughters, Margaret Burr, and in 1746 the Duke gave them an annuity, which granted them financial stability.
Gainsborough's landscapes were not selling very well, forcing him to move back to Sudbury and focus on portraits. He later moved to Ipswich, where his commissions increased, mostly for local squire and merchants. During this period in Ipswich, Gainsborough painted most of his landscapes and was highly influenced by the works of the Dutch painters. Jacob Van Ruisdael was among the most notable influences on him.
It was Gainsborough’s interest in naturalistic landscape painting, his Rococo influence from his artistic upbringing, and his work as a portraitist that brought forth his oeuvre as a visual correspondent to Pastoral poetry. Also, the Romanticist writers who revisited Arcadia's figure, an idealized and harmonic perspective on nature, have the same effect.
It’s worth noting that England would still become known for its landscape painting years later, with the names of John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner as its greatest exponents. In this aspect, Gainsborough can be seen as their precursor for his insistence on valuing a genre that had no tradition in their country.
Around 1759, Gainsborough moved with his family to the city of Bath, where he studied Anthony van Dyck’s portraits. The influence of van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens was seminal for the turn in the painter’s career, now hailing portraits as an important genre and working with extremely detailed textures of clothing. In a painting such as The Painter’s Daughters With A Cat, it’s possible to see his subtle use of color, the variety of the brushwork, the impactful and almost abstract background in contrast to the detailed depiction of the girl's skin.
By this time, Thomas Gainsborough and Margaret Burr already had two daughters. In this new city, the painter eventually attracted a better-stood clientele. The artist got along with many different artistic circles, especially with musicians. His portrait commissions increased, and he raised his prices since his aristocrat clients increased progressively. Even though he developed a tender and beautiful portraiture style, he was annoyed by having to focus all of his creativity towards it, as it is known through his correspondence.
In 1761, Gainsborough was sending paintings to the Society of Arts. From this moment on, he exhibited his works frequently in the British capital. The Society of Arts was an important circuit, and it’s these events that made him a nationally famous artist. By 1769, Gainsborough focused on selecting only portraits of notorious or well-known personalities to attract attention to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy.
The period the artist spent at the Academy was quite turbulent, and he left the institution in 1773. The English painter returned to exhibit again at the Academy in 1777. He showed several portraits, including of distinguished contemporary celebrities, such as The Duchess and Duke of Cumberland. He exhibited at the Academy for the following six years.
The Gainsborough family moved yet again, this time to London. As it was the case with Bath, this was a commercially motivated idea, and it would prove to be fruitful for the painter. Not only did he have a studio, but also a space big enough in his house to exhibit his work. He lived close to the auctioneer James Christie, the founder of Christie's, and they routinely chatted about artistic matters.
During the 1770s, the artist began to develop the style that was arguably the pinnacle of his career, producing artwork quite distinguished from the conventional. In said portraits, Gainsborough would often integrate the sitter to the landscape background, rather than a neutral, bland background. This happened through his colorwork, painting parts of the environment, and the figure's clothing in similar tones, creating a visual rhythm between those contrasts. He depicted several prominent figures such as the Duchess of Devonshire, Johnathan Buttal, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, and Johan Christian Bach, son of Johan Sebastian Bach.
King George III was quite pleased with the artist’s work, even preferring him over Sir Joshua Reynolds, who later became the official court painter. Queen Charlotte was even more infatuated with the painter's art, owning around 20 of his paintings.
As it is known, due to that patronage, Gainsborough was expecting to become the official court painter, a function that Reynolds conquered through his ties. This created a rivalry among the artists, even though Joshua Reynolds acknowledged Gainsborough’s talent, once stating that Girl With Pigs might be the artist’s most exceptional artwork.
In 1785, the artist was diagnosed with cancer. This took its toll on him, coupled with one of his daughter's mental instability and his disaffections towards the Academy. Thomas Gainsborough died in London in August 1788 and was buried in his family church. According to some scholars, Gainsborough was one of the most experimental artists of his time.