So how do you tell it’s a Gainsborough? Look for full-body portraits in the tradition of van Dyck. Like van Dyck, Gainsborough managed to take potboiler commissions of forgotten nobles to new artistic heights, with delicate Rococo colors and airy brush strokes. Also like van Dyck, Gainsborough employed many of the same or similar backdrops over and over again in his paintings (lots of decorative vases, balconies, rock formations, thick-trunked trees and velvet curtains that weirdly seem to pop out of the landscape). In fact, he often had the backgrounds done before he put the figures in – before he was even commissioned – which gives them a bit of a “floating” quality that one might see in a movie with low-budget CGI (I’m lookin’ at you, Gods of Egypt!).
With all due respect to Sir Thomas, imagine him for a moment as a glorified school photographer, and all that landscape behind the lady Duncombe as that weird felt background you sat in front of for your school picture. Basically, if you’re looking at a Rococo van Dyck, chances are, it’s a Gainsborough. Of course, it could be a painting by Gainsborough’s arch-nemesis, Joshua Reynolds, or even one by George Romney, but we’ll come to them another time.
Note how similar the two family portraits below are. One is by Gainsborough and one is by van Dyck.
Can you tell which? They are essentially the same composition, with families “floating” in front of a broad landscape, anchored only by a pillar and so much randomly billowing velvet! Or maybe it’s some sort of apparating satin, it’s difficult to tell. It’s not uncommon for an artist to emulate his forebears, and there is no doubt that Gainsborough found his muse in van Dyck. If you are looking at these two family portraits and wondering who is who, here are two tips that have nothing to do with painting technicalities: 1) Look at the clothes. The one to the left is a Gainsborough (The Baillie Family (c. 1784) at the Tate; the one on the right is a van Dyck (Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary (1631-32) at Buckingham Palace). You can pretty reliably pick out what clothes are from the 18th century and which are from the 17th. Things get less ruffly, billowy and silken as you march through time, especially for the men. 2) Look at the colors. If you see mustard, it’s almost certain to be a Baroque painting. Only in the 17th century – and maybe the 90s (see photograph below) – did people actually think they looked hot in mustard.