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Inventing the Landscape

England through Gainsborough’s Eyes

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

"I'm Sick of Portraits, 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." Thomas Gainsborough was already a well-established portrait painter when he wrote about his frustrations to his friend, the composer William Jackson, in 1772.

The fashionable were sitting for him at Bath--making a disappearance into village obscurity unlikely--and after he moved to London in 1774, he drew the attention of the royal family and other members of the aristocracy. King George III, Queen Charlotte, and Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire were among his patrons.

"Portrait painting was his bread and butter, but he hated painting portraits. He always wanted to paint landscapes," says scholar Ann Bermingham. Gainsborough had worked on landscapes from childhood, but it was nearer the end of his career that he began painting so-called "fancy pictures," romanticized depictions of poor cottage dwellers in idyllic landscape settings. These paintings are the focus of "Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's 'Cottage Door,'" an exhibition opening at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 6. The exhibition, which was organized with the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, California, brings together paintings, prints, and drawings by Gainsborough and his contemporaries that focus on cottage life.

When the most famous of the cottage paintings, The Cottage Door, was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1780, the Morning Chronicle hailed it as "a scene of happiness that may truly be called Adam's Paradise."

"It's the first time in British art that the subject of cottage, cottage life, and cottagers is taken up by an artist and developed as a major theme in landscape painting," says Bermingham, professor of art and architecture at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and guest curator of the exhibition. "The simple life becomes a major staple of British art well into the twentieth century."

Gainsborough's representation of country people was a stark contrast to earlier artistic depictions of the rural poor, particularly those of seventeenth-century Dutch artists, who sometimes represented peasants as boors, drunkards, and brawlers. "He creates the image of the noble peasant--the man who is simple, but good," says Bermingham.

Gainsborough's cottage door paintings helped lead the way into the golden age of British landscape painting. "This is when J. M. W. Turner and John Constable and Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman and all the great English landscape painters are young and in the process of forming their own take on English landscape painting," says Bermingham. "It is this moment that Gainsborough is known as a great landscape artist."

About the Author

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a freelance writer in Wheaton, Illinois.

Funding Information

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Garden received $239,424 in NEH funding for "Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's 'Cottage Door.'" The exhibition runs from October 6 to December 31 at the Yale Center for British Art and from February 11 to May 14, 2006, at the Huntington Library.