Thomas Gainsborough

"I am very well aware of the Objection to modern Dresses in Pictures, that they are soon out of fashion & look awkward; but as that misfortune cannot be help'd we must set it against the unluckiness of fancied Dresses taking away Likenesses, the principal beauty and intention of a Portrait." - Thomas Gainsborough, 1826.

Known for his elegant full length portraits of British society figures, often depicted in front of elaborate landscapes, Thomas Gainsborough also developed a category of painting called "fancy pictures" that are romanticized landscape paintings of rustic rural figures. Although he loved landscape painting, he was involved in the more lucrative portraiture market. He was adept at oil painting techniques, particularly glazes and scumbling and even experimented with different grounds including glass with a back-lit light source. His skills extended to a number of new graphic techniques, such as aquatint and soft ground etching.

Gainsborough was an artistic prodigy and studied with local artists in Suffolk before moving to London to train under the French engraver Hubert Gravelot and later Francis Hayman. He likely studied at St Martin Lane Academy, a school founded by William Hogarth. He never traveled to the continent and lived in Sudbury, Ipswich, Bath and London where he pursued a steadily growing market for his society portraits. Gainsborough was a founding member of the Royal Academy and he had a famous rivalry with Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Academy.

Gainsborough's sensitivity to his sitter's social role, his creative compositions and his alertness to the social and political changes occurring in England have made his work an indispensable record. His painting practice was so well established that he made portraits of the Royal Family in 1780. Gainsborough's Ignatius Sancho was the first European painting to enter the National Gallery's collection.

© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

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