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Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough

The portrait and landscape painter, Thomas Gainsborough is considered one of the most important British artists of the late 18th century. Born at Sudbury, Suffolk, Gainsborough was the youngest son of a cloth merchant. At age 13 he apprenticed for a London silversmith and worked as an assistant to Hubert Gravelot, a French painter and engraver. In 1745, he established his own studio in London, and a year later he married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort. The couple returned to Suffolk before settling in Ipswich in 1752. During this period, they had two daughters, Mary in 1748, and Margaret in 1752.

In the early phase of his career, he painted landscapes such as Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (1748) that were inspired by Dutch 17th century landscape painting. In parallel, he honed his portrait skills by painting local nobility and merchants. The most famous of his early paintings is Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750), the portrait of the landowner Robert Andrews and his young wife Frances Andrews. The painting not only displayed his skills as a portraitist but also as a landscape painter, by creating the effect of changing weather in the background.

Although Gainsborough always claimed to prefer landscape painting, the demands of the market led him to portraiture. In 1759 he moved to Bath, seeking a more fashionable clientele. There, he studied the works of Anthony van Dyck, who influenced Gainsborough’s portraits such as Isabella, Countess of Sefton (1769), and The Blue Boy (1770). While in Bath, he met and developed a rivalry with the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, as they both aspired to be the greatest portraitists in the country. Throughout the 1760s Gainsborough exhibited at the Society of Artists, which added to his popularity and prestige. In 1768, Gainsborough and Reynolds were both selected as the founding members of the Royal Academy, and Reynolds became its first President. Gainsborough’s relationship with the Royal Academy was a strained one: he often quarreled with the Academy over the hanging of his paintings, which led him to withdraw his works from the Annual Exhibition on several occasions.

In 1774, Gainsborough moved to London, where he continued to thrive. He befriended figures from the theater and musical circles and painted some of the great artists of his day: composer Johann Christian Bach (1776), ballerina Giovanna Baccelli (1782), theater actress Mrs. Siddons (1785) and many more. His rivalry with Reynolds continued, and even though Reynolds was the King’s official court painter, Gainsborough was the King’s personal favorite. He received prestigious commissions from the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland in 1777, and from the King and Queen in 1781. In the later stages of his career, Gainsborough dedicated more time to landscape painting and produced important works such as The Harvest Wagon (ca. 1784).
Thomas Gainsborough died of cancer on August 2, 1788, at the age of 61. While on his deathbed he reconciled with Reynolds, his longtime rival. In a letter to him, the artist expressed his admiration and respect for the painter and his work. After his death, Reynolds wrote that the Royal Academy has lost ‘one of its greatest ornaments’.

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Thomas Gainsborough FRSA (14 May 1727 (baptised) – 2 August 1788) was an English portrait and landscape painter, draughtsman, and printmaker. He surpassed his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds to become the dominant British portraitist of the second half of the 18th century. He painted quickly, and the works of his maturity are characterised by a light palette and easy strokes. He preferred landscapes to portraits, and is credited (with Richard Wilson) as the originator of the 18th-century British landscape school. Gainsborough was a founding member of the Royal Academy.

He was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the youngest son of John Gainsborough, a weaver and maker of woollen goods, and his wife, the sister of the Reverend Humphry Burroughs. One of Gainsborough's brothers, Humphrey, had a faculty for mechanics and was said to have invented the method of condensing steam in a separate vessel, which was of great service to James Watt; another brother, John, was known as Scheming Jack because of his passion for designing curiosities.

The artist spent his childhood at what is now Gainsborough's House, on Gainsborough Street. He later resided there, following the death of his father in 1748 and before his move to Ipswich. The original building still survives and is now a dedicated House to his life and art.

When he was still a boy he impressed his father with his drawing and painting skills, and he almost certainly had painted heads and small landscapes by the time he was ten years old, including a miniature self-portrait. Gainsborough was allowed to leave home in 1740 to study art in London, where he trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot but became associated with William Hogarth and his school. He assisted Francis Hayman in the decoration of the supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens, and contributed to the decoration of what is now the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children.

In 1746, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on them. The artist's work, then mostly consisting of landscape paintings, was not selling well. He returned to Sudbury in 1748–1749 and concentrated on painting portraits.

In 1752, he and his family, now including two daughters, moved to Ipswich. Commissions for personal portraits increased, but his clientele included mainly local merchants and squires. He had to borrow against his wife's annuity.

In 1759, Gainsborough and his family moved to Bath, living at number 17 The Circus. There, he studied portraits by van Dyck and was eventually able to attract a fashionable clientele. In 1761, he began to send work to the Society of Arts exhibition in London (now the Royal Society of Arts, of which he was one of the earliest members); and from 1769 he submitted works to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions. He selected portraits of well-known or notorious clients in order to attract attention. The exhibitions helped him acquire a national reputation, and he was invited to become a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1769. His relationship with the academy was not an easy one and he stopped exhibiting his paintings in 1773.

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