Born in rural Suffolk, the largely self-taught Gainsborough established his reputation as a society portraitist at Bath, a popular resort, before moving to London in 1774. Despite his urban success, he never lost his love of the countryside and coastline, lamenting, "I'm sick of portraits and wish very much to ... walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint Landskips."
Gainsborough's landscapes, however, are seldom if ever of actual scenery. In accordance with much eighteenth-century art theory, he believed that nature itself was an unsuitable subject. Only after an artist had refined a scene through his sensibilities could he begin to paint it.
In the 1780s, Gainsborough experimented with a "peep-show box." Using translucent paints, he created landscapes on sheets of glass that were then inserted into a shadow box. Backlit with candles, the miniature theatre permitted endless lighting schemes by means of changeable screens of colored silk. Depicting an imaginary seacoast, this canvas reveals the influence of Gainsborough's viewing box. Framed by the dark beach and pale cliff, the sky and surf seem phosphorescent.
As usual, Gainsborough improvised as he worked. The boulder in the lower-right corner conceals two fishermen and an anchor that he later painted out.