‘I am sick of portraits and wish very much to take up my viola da gamba and walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landscapes and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease,” so complained 18th century British artist Thomas Gainsborough.
The disgruntled yet family-loving artist is the subject of the Princeton University Art Museum’s “Gainsborough’s Family Album,” developed by the National Portrait Gallery in London and on view in Princeton through June 9. An opening reception and related talk take place Saturday, February 23, at 5 p.m.
“Gainsborough was one of 18th-century Britain’s most successful portraitists, but he paid a high price for his popularity,” notes exhibition curator David H. Solkin. “His private correspondence makes it clear that he chafed under the tyranny of his vain and wealthy sitters, whose incessant demands he blamed for stifling his creating as an artist and demeaning his dignity as a gentleman. He also lamented that the need to earn his living from catering to an endless parade of ‘damned faces’ prevented him from pursuing his devotion to landscape, the branch of art he most loved but that sadly did not pay. Yet despite these feeling of profound frustration, Gainsborough nonetheless found the time, the energy, and (perhaps most surprisingly) the desire to paint and draw more portraits of his family members than any other artist of his or any earlier period is known to have produced — nearly 50 likenesses in total.”
Gainsborough is the creator of the famous 1779 painting “The Blue Boy,” and his place in history is reflected by a National Gallery overview that calls him the “leading portrait painter in England in the later 18th century. The feathery brushwork of his mature work and rich sense of color contribute to the enduring popularity of his portraits. Unlike (his chief rival) Joshua Reynolds, he avoids references to Italian Renaissance art or the antique, and shows his sitters in fashionable contemporary dress. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy, though he later quarreled with it over the hanging of his pictures. He became a favorite painter of George III and his family.”
It is an impressive accomplishment for the fifth son of a cloth merchant and purveyor of burial shrouds. Here are some details: Gainsborough was born in 1727 in Suffolk, apprenticed at the age of 13 to a London silversmith, taught by a French book illustrator, and established his own London studio by 1745. Over the next six years he married Margaret Burr and opened a studio in the popular and expanding city of Bath. Then in 1774 he moved to London and established a fashionable and successful portrait studio.
A lively letter writer, he was known in his time as a highly strung personality — one a recent critic summed up as “eccentric, outspoken, and capable of temper tantrums.” Prominent 18th-century actor, playwright, and client David Garrick said Gainsborough’s “cranium is so crammed with genius of every kind that it is in danger of bursting on you like a steam engine overcharged.”
Yet art must have mitigated the angst and, as National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan says, this “exhibition juxtaposes some of the artist’s best loved works of art with little known and rarely seen portraits. Proposing a new way of considering Gainsborough, it tells the story of a provincial artist’s rise to metropolitan fame and fortune as part of a wider kinship network of blood relations, in-laws, and friends, comprising amongst others, an artist, his wife and business manager, their daughters, an artist assistant, a clothes merchant turned postmaster, a milliner, and a carpenter; what makes this ensemble particularly remarkable is they depict an ordinary family at a time when portraiture was almost exclusively confined to the rich, the famous, and the upper classes.”
“It’s exhilarating just for the way he manipulates paint,” the Evening Standard’s Matthew Collings wrote about Gainsborough during its London exhibition. “The faces of the people he knew and saw all the time, their clothing, particular fabrics and shiny buttons, the people’s hair and eyelashes and eyebrows, and their serious or smiling expressions — all this emerges from brushstrokes that are full of independent liveliness.”
Collings also points out that each of the works has “a subtle drama to how he presents people” by using stagey settings that include clouds, foliage, or “nothing but shadows on a wall.”
Collings adds, “The eye registers this easy flow with pleasure without the mind being fully conscious of what’s causing it, just as most of the painting was done by Gainsborough without a full awareness of exactly where his brush was going. He kept everything loose, working with long-handled brushes and very liquid paint, only clinching the illusion of reality here and there in the final stages with deft touches done with small brushes. Even these focus points are abstract scrawls in miniature when you look at them close-to. This is to learn the great lesson of Gainsborough appreciation: that the paint surface is always on the move.”
Gainsborough’s Family Album, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton campus. Through June 9, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Related programs include the opening reception and talk, Saturday, February 23, 5 p.m. The Princeton Singers concert exploring British choral music from the Renaissance to the 21st century, including the Byrd Mass for Four Voices, 5:30 p.m. and again at 8 p.m., $15. And the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s intimate night of “Gainsborough’s Circle of Composer Friends” and a reception at the art museum, March 6, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. $30. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.