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Title

: Institute Acquires Landscape by Thomas Gainsborough

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1954

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In view of the Twentieth Century's evaluation of Gainsborough's genius it is appropriate that the Institute's first acquisition of a painting by that eighteenth-century English master should be a distinguished landscape. Purchased through the John R. Van Derlip Fund, the new landscape, entitled The Fallen Tree, represents perhaps the most creative phase of the artist's career. Painted in his home town of Sudbury, in Suffolk, before he was twenty five, The Fallen Tree reveals the young Gainsborough's great talent and promise. Although he became, in his own lifetime, the only serious rival of his illustrious contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in the field of fashionable portraiture, Gainsborough began and finished his career as a landscape painter. In fact, throughout his life, he returned to his first love, landscape painting, as often as circumstances of popular taste and patronage permitted, and when they did not, he attempted a marriage of portrait and landscape painting. Perhaps because the great mass of Gainsborough's surviving work lies in portraiture, his significant contribution to landscape painting is frequently forgotten. There remain some seven hundred portraits as compared to two hundred landscapes by the master, yet the latter represent some of his most original efforts.Born in 1727, Thomas Gainsborough was the son of a fairly prosperous cloth merchant of Sudbury. By 1740, when a bare thirteen years old, he left Sudbury for an apprenticeship in London. The exact nature of his training is somewhat obscure. However, sometime before 1745 he was apprenticed to the French painter and printmaker Gravelot. In order to support himself, after marrying at nineteen, he not only copied Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, but restored them for the London dealers. Thus he developed under the influence of both French and Dutch painting. The first did not fully manifest itself until he turned to fashionable portraiture. The second more profoundly influenced his early painting, for the landscapes by such Dutch masters as Jacob Van Ruysdael and Hobbema led him back to nature, but it was a nature requiring the control found in the orderly compositions of the Dutch. It is significant that Gainsborough should develop quite independently of the influence of Mediterranean schools which determined the course followed by his contemporaries, Reynolds in portraiture and Wilson in landscape.In 1746 Gainsborough married. Two years later he received an important commission to paint The Charterhouse for the Foundling Hospital, one among a series of London hospitals painted by Wilson and others. With the exception of Wilson's work, Gainsborough's was the only painting which departed from a topographic style. He turned out a pure landscape, a fresh vision of the scene, advanced for any painter of the day, and especially for a young man of twenty-one. If the taste of the time had been different, Gainsborough might have found encouragement to produce landscapes anticipating the work of his countryman Constable, or even Monet. From the beginning, his talent lay in the direction clearly indicated by the Institute's painting, The Fallen Tree, completed a few years later. But Gainsborough was born during the golden age of English fortunes, many of them new, and the wealthy demanded the kind of elegance, however artificial, found in fashionable portraiture.In 1748, the year that he completed his view of The Charterhouse, Gainsborough was called back to Sudbury by the death of his father. Circumstances forced him to settle in Suffolk where he perfected his mastery of landscape painting independently of the fashion in London. With his easygoing personality he did not miss the city or its learned men. Unlike his fellow painters, he was not literary in a great age of literature. He did not draw his inspirations from intellectual men like Dr. Johnson of his circle, but from his own imaginative mind, and nature. His chief recreation was music, and he was sufficiently competent to provide his own wherever he went. He was especially sensitive to the beauties of Suffolk, the rich cloud effects and changing light effects over the valley of the Stour. Shortly after his arrival he completed Cornard Wood, now in the National Gallery, London. It is so closely associated with his personal life that it is sometimes called “Gainsborough's Forest.” A short time later he completed A Distant View of Cornard, recently acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinborough. Both the aforementioned paintings are in what Gainsborough called his “Dutch manner.” Although Dutch influence in both paintings is strong, there is just as much of Gainsborough's personal style in them. Certainly not long after completing the two larger landscapes, Gainsborough finished the Institute's version of the theme, The Fallen Tree.As preparation for The Fallen Tree Gainsborough probably made numerous quick drawings from which he later selected elements to organize his composition. By the time these elements had been altered for use in the painting, they had become creations of his own mind. Whereas the first suggestion for the subject must have been the result of an actual observation, the inspiration for the final painting was a product of Gainsborough's imagination. In this sense Gainsborough's landscapes can be compared with Watteau's poetic version. However, if compared with landscapes by other eighteenth-century painters, nothing could be more English than this particular work.At first the painting seems to be a rich and lyrical, but possibly an over dramatized work. On closer inspection it reveals a disciplined observation of nature, a projection of such essentials as light and shadow which he never allows to stand still. Gainsborough floods the painting with light, and in doing so goes several steps beyond the Dutch. Indeed, his treatment of light constitutes his most significant contribution to landscape painting. Although Gainsborough has made use of certain easily recognizable formulae, such as the placing of the donkey in the middle distance, and the tree in the foreground, devices lifted from Ruysdael or Hobbema, he has concentrated on a more important contribution of the Dutch, the perfection of distance. The Fallen Tree records another stage in the development of the total visual effect perfected by the seventeenth-century Dutch masters. In this work Gainsborough has rendered his illusion of the third dimension with great success, carrying the spectator's eye through trees, over trees, past the steeple of Cornard Church, and into the distance. In this further development of special principles adapted from the Dutch, together with his treatment of light, lie the essential aspects of his genius and contribution to the history of painting.Gainsborough's late, small landscapes painted in Suffolk fall into a pattern of the Institute's painting. In most of these there is a reddish brown foreground, pink and gray clouds, and green and brown foliage, presented in a series of graceful lines and curves. Some of these works remind one of the exquisite landscapes by Fragonard, for they contain the same delicacy of feeling for light and texture. In Gainsborough's case, however, this sensitivity of rendering is lavished on cows and villagers. Occasionally Gainsborough received a commission to do a large landscape, usually a “chimney piece.” But the demand for these was rare, and he soon turned to portraiture. At first he placed his sitters in a landscape setting, creating series of conversation pieces, in the best of which Cornard Wood and Cornard Church appear in the background. He thus elevated the conversation piece from a provincial to a sophisticated work of art. Such paintings as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews, John Plampin of Chadacre, and Heneage Lloyd and His Sister show promise of what might have developed into a unique phase of English gentry at ease in their own milieu. Gainsborough preferred the informal portrait but, alas, his patrons preferred the formal.Gainsborough in 1759 moved to Bath where his portraits proved an instant success. Bath, as for the most fashionable watering place of the day, attracted a constantly changing clientele of wealth, thus providing the artist with the means of supporting his wife and two daughters in style. Van Dyck had summed up the English notion of aristocracy, so Gainsborough studied Van Dyck's art, especially his elegant and fluid handling of light and form, and these he adapted to his own use. This step led to a long series of famous portraits in the best of which one sees the interest in fleeting effects of shadow and texture, found earlier in The Fallen Tree. In most of these portraits resemblance to nature can be seriously questioned. The faces of his sitters can hardly be called provocative. Since Gainsborough was not interested in the psychological portrait, he adapted himself with ease to painting the elite, country squires, merchants, peers, and members of the royal family.He still painted landscapes when he had the opportunity, but he seldom sold them. This work fell outside the mainstream of his business as well as of fashionable taste. However, it was while at Bath that he painted the many versions of The Harvest Wagon in which he created a personal arcadia reminiscent of the Institute's landscape, but removed a degree farther from actual reproduction of nature. It was at this time that he wrote to a friend, “I am sick of portraits and wish very much to take my viol-de-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landscapes and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.”Circumstances did not permit him to do so. Gainsborough actually spent the end of his life in London, moving there in 1774 and dying there in 1788. He had visited London frequently during the fifteen years he lived in Bath, and even during the years he had lived in Ipswich. In 1768 he had become a Foundation Member of the Royal Academy, the only portraitist living outside London who was so honored. His fame thus established, he met with continued success in London. He continued his portraits, but somehow or another found more time for what he called his “fancy pictures,” which are really genre scenes and as such combining landscapes with figures, and which he exploited for sentimental purposes. The most famous of these is The Cottage Door, the finest version of which is in Cincinnati. In addition, he produced a fascinating series of less ambitious works, very free sketches, in ink, watercolor, and sometimes oil, of landscapes even more removed from nature than anything he had heretofore attempted. For these last landscapes he made very quick and sketchy drawings of miniature landscapes created out of moss and twigs on the table of his London studio. Again, by the time he had altered these drawings for the final work, whether wash or oil, the landscape had become purely imaginary. In this final flowering of his talent one detects his nostalgia for rural pleasures and recalls the earlier landscapes of such promise.After Gainsborough's death his most serious rival in portraiture, Reynolds, delivered a discourse in his praise at the Royal Academy. Even Sir Joshua, to whom Gainsborough's art must have appeared impressionistic, acknowledged his superiority, citing the rare beauty of Gainsborough's landscapes, and especially of his late “fancy pictures.” The contents of this discourse are well known, but it is necessary to repeat one sentence which admirably sums up Gainsborough's position. Reynolds said: “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 the art, among the very first of that rising name.”Gainsborough's art was so personal that he left few, if any, followers. His true heir turned out to be Constable, who a generation later defined Gainsborough's genius in the fourth of his famous lectures on landscape painting. Constable clarified for his contemporaries the difference between the Dutch masters, who depended on a careful arrangement of what they saw, and Gainsborough, who combined observation of nature with his own mind. This comparison led to great developments, first in Constable's own painting, and later in that of the Impressionists, for Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, and Berthe Morisot traveled to London to see Gainsborough's work.The ownership of The Fallen Tree can be traced for over a century. Originally purchased by Dr. Turton, Bishop of Ely, it was later brought by Sir Francis Cook, Bart., whose descendants have shared it until its accession by the Institute. During the time that it was in the splendid Cook Collection, the Institute's landscape hung with masterpieces of earlier centuries. In its new home it will bridge the gap in the Institute's permanent collection between such earlier, European landscape paintings as Hobbema's Landscape with Water Mill and Ruysdael's River Scene and the nineteenth-century Impressionist masterpieces, among them Renoir's St. Mark's, Venice and Cézanne's Chestnut Trees. The Fallen Tree represents a truly creative expression on the part of Gainsborough.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Fallen Tree, detail of oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough. English, 1727-1788. John R. Van Derlip Fund, 1953.
  2. Thomas Gainsborough: The Fallen Tree (40 x 36 inches.) A fine example of the artist's early period. Formerly in the Cook Collection Richmond, England. Purchased from the John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  3. Thomas Gainsborough: Cornard Wood 1748. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery London. A view of the Suffolk countryside painted few years before The Fallen Tree.
  4. Thomas Gainsborough: Cornard Church, a detail from The Fallen Tree showing Gainsborough's early, prophetic interest in shifting light effects.
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Institute Acquires Landscape by Thomas Gainsborough," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 43, no. 1 (January, 1954): 2-7.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009