Thomas Gainsborough, part deux

Like Joseph Wright of Derby, Thomas Gainsborough painted portraits out of financial necessity but preferred landscapes.

John Constable may have been the first major British landscape-only painter (if you don’t count guys like Richard Wilson and George Lambert), the forerunner to the master of the genre, J. M. W. Turner; but Gainsborough was the first major British landscape artist. You might remember that Gainsborough basically copied van Dyck’s compositions for his portraits of rich people (so many decorative rocks, randomly placed draperies, and giant pots!). Well, he borrowed from the Dutch for landscapes too, specifically from two of our good friends, Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Let’s first compare Hobbema and Gainsborough:

Woodland Road (1670) by Meindert Hobbema. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Woodland Road (1670) by Meindert Hobbema. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Aerial angle. Linear perspective (with your eyes focusing down the road). A building a couple hundred feet off. Squiggly Lorax trees (especially by the cottage). Small figures. Puffy white clouds. Hobbema!

Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (1748) by Thomas Gainsborough. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (1748) by Thomas Gainsborough. The National Gallery (London, UK).

Same traits here. Just less-squiggly trees.  This is an early work by Gainsborough, and even the painting style is Hobbema. There’s a lot less air in this painting than is typical of a Gainsborough. Even the colors are darker. More earth-toned. The details meticulous. It has the feeling of a Dutch Baroque landscape, and upon first glance, one would not suspect that it’s by the leading light of the English Rococo movement.

Here’s another, in the more typical Gainsborough style:

Road from Market (1767-1768) by Thomas Gainsborough. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH). 

Road from Market (1767-1768) by Thomas Gainsborough. Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH). 

The colors are brighter, the feathery brush strokes more visible. Even the paint looks thinner, perhaps mixed with turpentine.

Now let’s have a gander at a Jacob van Ruisdael:

Winter Landscape with Dead Tree (1670s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. The State Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg, Russia).

Winter Landscape with Dead Tree (1670s) by Jacob van Ruisdael. The State Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg, Russia).

A dangerous natural scene with dark, ominous clouds and a “blasted tree,” often seen in Jacob’s work.

Let’s see how Gainsborough flips it:

Carthorses Drinking at a Stream (c. 1760) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

Carthorses Drinking at a Stream (c. 1760) by Thomas Gainsborough. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

It’s a van Ruisdael, all right, but without the sturm. Or the drang.

Compared to their Dutch muses, Gainsborough’s landscapes are a bit more idealized, the colors brighter, the brush strokes looser but hardly sloppy. For lack of a better word, there’s a “daintiness” to Gainsborough’s work that is just lacking in the Dutch catalog. It’s less careful, more spontaneous. And for my money, a little more lively. In this way, despite paying homage to the Dutch Masters before him, Gainsborough puts his own stamp on his landscapes, and it’s no wonder that his work enthralled the likes of John Constable, who lived just sixteen miles from where Gainsborough was born. Together, they made the landscapes of Suffolk famous.