Reynolds was a man of the world, ready to make the obeisances required for social acceptance; Gainsborough was a passionate individualist who raged at the sacrifices demanded of his personality and his art as the price of success. His parents were Dissenters; Thomas inherited their independence of spirit without their piety. Stories are told of his playing truant from school in his native Sudbury to roam the countryside, sketching trees and sky, and the cattle grazing in the fields or drinking at a pond. Having by the age of fourteen drawn all the trees in the neighborhood, he obtained permission from his father to go to London and study art. There he studied the women of the town, as we gather from his later advice to a young actor: “Don’t run about London streets, fancying you are catching strokes of nature, at the hazard of your constitution. It was my first school, and deeply read in petticoats I am; therefore you may allow me to caution you.”47
Suddenly, still but nineteen, he found himself married to a Scottish girl of sixteen, Margaret Burr. She was, by most accounts, the illegitimate daughter of a duke, but she had an income of £ 200 a year.48 In 1748 they settled in Ipswich. He joined a music club there, for he was fond of music, and played several instruments. “I make portraits for a living, landscapes because I love them, and music because I cannot help myself.”49 In the work of the Dutch “landskip” painters he found a reinforcement of his interest in nature. Philip Thicknesse, governor of the nearby Landguard Fort, commissioned him to paint the fort, the neighboring hills, and Harwich; then he advised him to seek a richer and wider clientele in Bath.
Arrived there (1759), Gainsborough sought out the musicians rather than the artists, and soon numbered Johann Christian Bach among his friends. He had the soul and sensitivity of a musician, and in his paintings he turned music into warmth of color -and grace of line. Bath had some good collections; now he could study landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Poussin, and portraits by Vandyck; he became the inheritor of Vandyck’s English manner—portraits that added the highest refinement of art to distinction of personality and elegance of dress.
In Bath he did some of his best work. The Sheridans were living there; Gainsborough painted Richard’s lovely young wife.50 He lavished all his maturing artistry on The Honorable Mrs. Graham ,51 whose red robe, in its wrinkles and folds, allowed him to display the most delicate gradations of color and shade. When this portrait was exhibited in the Royal Academy at London (1777) it seemed to many observers to outshine anything that Reynolds had done. About 1770 Gainsborough transfigured Jonathan Buttal, son of an ironmonger, into The Blue Boy, for which the Huntington Art Gallery paid $500,000. Reynolds had expressed his conviction that no acceptable portrait could be done in blue; his rising rival met the challenge triumphantly; blue became henceforth a favorite color in English painting.
Now every notable in Bath wished to sit for Gainsborough. But “I’m sick of portraits,” he told a friend, “and wish very much to take my viol-da-gamba and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.”52 Instead he moved to London (1774) and rented sumptuous rooms in Schomberg House, Pall Mall, at £ 300 a year; he was not to be outdone by Reynolds’ display. He quarreled with the Academy on the hanging of his pictures; for four years (1773-77) he refused to exhibit there; and after 1783 his new work could be seen only at the annual opening of his studio. Art critics began an ungracious war of comparisons between Reynolds and Gainsborough; Reynolds was generally rated superior, but the royal family favored Gainsborough, and he painted them all. Soon half of the blue bloods of England flocked to Schomberg House, seeking the precarious immortality of paint. Now Gainsborough portrayed Sheridan, Burke, Johnson, Franklin, Blackstone, Pitt II, Clive … To establish himself, and pay his rent, he had to resign himself to portraiture.
His sitters found him hard to please. One lord put on all his airs as he posed; Gainsborough sent him away unpainted. Garrick’s features were so mobile and changeful (for this was half the secret of his superiority as an actor) that the artist could find no expression that lasted long enough to reveal the man. He had the same trouble with Garrick’s rival Samuel Foote. “Rot them for a couple of rogues,” exclaimed Gainsborough; “they have everybody’s face but their own.”53 He found a different difficulty with Mrs. Siddons: “Damn your nose, madam! There’s no end to it.”54 He was at his best with women; he felt their sexual attraction strongly, but he sublimated this into a poetry of soft colors and dreamy eyes.
When his expensive establishment allowed him he painted landscapes, for which there was little demand. Often he placed his sitters—or standees—against a rustic scene, as in Robert Andrews and His Wife (which brought $364,000 at an auction in 1960). Too busy to go and sketch in the face of living nature, he brought into his studio stumps, weeds, branches, flowers, animals, and arranged them—with dressed-up dolls to serve as people—into a tableau;55 from these objects, from his memories, and from his imagination, he painted landscapes. There was a certain artificial quality in them, a formalism and regularity seldom found in nature; even so the result conveyed an air of rural fragrance and peace. In his later years he painted some “fancy pictures,” in which he made no pretense to realism, but indulged his romantic temper; one of these, Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher, has all the sentiment of Greuze’s La Cruche cassée (The Broken Pitcher); both were painted in 1785.56
Only an artist can measure Gainsborough’s worth. In his own time he was ranked below Reynolds; his drawing was criticized as careless, his composition as lacking unity, his figures as improperly posed; but Reynolds himself praised the shimmering brilliance of his rival’s coloring. There was a poetry and music to Gainsborough’s work that the great portraitist could not warmly understand. Reynolds had a more masculine intellect, and succeeded better in portraying men; Gainsborough was a more romantic spirit, who preferred to paint women and boys. He had missed the classical training that Reynolds had received in Italy, and he lacked the stimulating associations that enriched Reynolds’ mind and art. Gainsborough did little reading, had few intellectual interests, shunned the circle of wits that gathered around Johnson. He was generous but impulsive and critical; he could never have listened with patience to Reynolds’ lectures or Johnson’s decrees. Yet he kept Sheridan’s friendship to the end.
As he grew older he turned melancholy, for the romantic spirit, unless it is religious, is helpless in the face of death. In many Gainsborough landscapes a dead tree intrudes itself as a memento mori amid rich foliage and lush grass. Probably he surmised that cancer was consuming him, and felt a rising bitterness at the thought of so prolonged an agony. A few days before he died he wrote a letter of reconciliation to Reynolds and asked the older man to visit him. Reynolds came, and the two men, who had not so much quarreled as been the subject of lesser men’s disputes, engaged in a friendly chat. When they parted Gainsborough remarked, “Goodbye till we meet in the hereafter, Vandyck in our company.”57 He died on August 2, 1788, in his sixty-first year.
Reynolds joined Sheridan in carrying the body to Kew Churchyard. Four months later Reynolds, in his Fourteenth Discourse, paid him a just tribute. He frankly noted defects as well as excellences in Gainsborough’s work, but he added: “If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honorable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of art, among the very first of that rising name.”58
George Romney struggled to reach the popularity of Reynolds and Gainsborough, but his defects of education, health, and character kept him to a more modest role. Without schooling after the age of twelve, he worked in his father’s carpentry shop in Lancashire till he was nineteen. His drawings won him instruction in painting from a local wastrel. At twenty-two he fell seriously ill; recovering, he married the nurse; soon restless, he left her to seek his fortune; he saw her only twice in the next thirty-seven years, but he sent her a part of his earnings. He made enough to visit Paris and Rome, where he was influenced by the neoclassical trend. Back in London, he attracted patronage by his ability to clothe his sitters in grace or dignity. One of these was Emma Lyon, the future Lady Hamilton; Romney was so captivated by her beauty that he portrayed her as goddess, Cassandra, Circe, Magdalen, Joan of Arc, and saint. In 1782 he painted a portrait of Lady Sutherland, for which he received £ 18; it was recently sold for $250,000. In 1799, broken in body and mind, he returned to his wife; she nursed him again, as she had done forty-four years before. He lingered through three years of paralysis, and died in 1802. Through him and Reynolds and Gainsborough England was now, in this half century, in painting as well as in politics and literature, in the full stream of European civilization.