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Thomas Gainsborough

British, 1727 - 1788

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Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, the youngest of the nine children of John Gainsborough and the sister of the Reverend Humphry Burroughs; he was baptized in Sudbury on 14 May 1727. He attended Sudbury Grammar School, of which his maternal uncle was the master. He took to sketching at an early age, and when he was thirteen prevailed upon his father to send him up to London to become an artist. A pupil of the French illustrator and draftsman Hubert Gravelot, Gainsborough was intimately involved with avant-garde rococo art and design, and seems to have assisted Francis Hayman on his genre paintings for the decoration of Vauxhall Gardens.

After a short period on his own in London between about 1744 and 1748, during which he painted small-scale portraits and landscapes in the manner of Jan Wijnants and Jacob van Ruisdael, and married Margaret Burr, Gainsborough returned to his native Suffolk. After a few years in Sudbury he moved, in 1752, to the larger seaport town of Ipswich. There is only one, uncorroborated, reference (to a visit to Flanders in later life) to suggest that he ever traveled abroad, as was customary among his fellow artists. By 1759, still finding it difficult to make ends meet and now with two daughters to support, he realized he had exhausted the possibilities of local patronage and moved to the fashionable spa town of Bath, where he achieved instantaneous success.

Set back by a nervous illness in 1763, he later became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts, contributing to its first exhibition a scintillating female full-length portrait in the manner of Van Dyck. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gainsborough customarily painted his portraits entirely with his own hand; his only known assistant was his nephew Gainsborough Dupont, who was apprenticed to him in 1772.

In 1774 Gainsborough moved to London, where he settled in a wing of Schomberg House, Pall Mall. In 1777 he received the first of many commissions from the royal family. In 1780 he exhibited a wide range of landscape compositions, and in 1783 made a tour of the Lake District in search of picturesque scenery. An original printmaker, he experimented in these years with soft-ground etching and aquatint; influenced by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg's popular entertainment, the Eidophusikon, he also constructed a peep-show box in which transparencies were seen magnified and lit by candles from behind, producing a dramatic and colorful effect. After quarreling with the Royal Academy about the hanging of his pictures (he rarely participated in Academy affairs), from 1784 onward Gainsborough arranged annual exhibitions in his studio. He was by then comparatively well off. He died of cancer in London on 2 August 1788.

[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 80-82.]

Artist Bibliography

Whitley, William T. Thomas Gainsborough. London, 1915.
Woodall, Mary. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. 2d rev. ed. London, 1963.
Hayes, John. The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough. 2 vols. London and New Haven, 1970 and 1971.
Hayes, John. Gainsborough: Paintings and Drawings. London, 1975.
Hayes, John. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough. 2 vols. London and New York, 1982.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 80-82.

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