"A Sentimental Journey" - Thomas Gainsborough, sensitivity and sentimentalism

14 May 1727, the English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough was born (or christened) in Sudbury, Suffolk.

“I am sick of portraits and wish very much to take up my viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet village when I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.” (Thomas Gainsborough)

"The Blue Boy, Portrait of Jonathan Buttall" (circa 1770)

The term “baroque” is still connoted with an exuberance of often sensuous detail to a point of becoming flamboyantly grotesque. It was the style of absolutistic rulers at the height of their power and when “baroque” climaxed into voluptuous and world-enraptured Rococo and the French began sharpening their bayonets on the eve of the Great Revolution, another ideological trend had long since taken hold of the minds of the emergent middle classes of Europe’s Protestant nations, England, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and some of the German States, especially Prussia in her Frederickian parsimony and austerity. Kant and Hume had paved the way of the Age of Enlightenment, echoed by Voltaire and Rousseau, Winckelmann had pointed the prosy Classical conception of Antiquity against the Baroque’s rather fussy idea of ancient Greece and Rome and Richardson and Sterne and the “Rise of the Novel” in England created a new mindset. It became fashionable to be “empfindsam”, a German neologism that meant “sensitive” in contrast to “sensuous” and few contrasts were ideologically sharper than these two parallel currents in European art and philosophy in the second half of the 18th century, even if they manifested themselves in seemingly harmless looking phenomena like English landscape gardens, the re-emergence of landscape painting and the artistic perception of the two rivals of English art of the 18th century, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough who subtly created the pictorial world of contemporary middle class ideology and sensitivity beyond the castigations of William Hogarth, sensitive enough maybe to prevent a Revolution.  

Mr and Mrs Andrews“ (1750) – The squirearchy in their natural habitat

The velvety revolutionary idea of Gainsborough’s paintings was to renounce not only the sujets of popular and well-paid Academic Art of the 1750s, but their baroque picture puzzle approach along with it. While, more often than not, baroque painters planted several levels of symbolic meanings into their works, from a religious or mythological topics down to the placement of certain artefacts and the depiction of gestures to convey one or several meanings to their audience, sensitive Gainsborough took his subjects out of the studio and mythological surroundings and garbs and into the great wide open of the English countryside, dressed up in their contemporary clothing. And while he became an expert in depicting fabrics along with the fashion of the squirearchy, bridging the works of the Dutch masters of the 1600s and the approach of the future Realists of the next century, Gainsborough expected his audience to feel rather than intellectually unlock the painting by deciphering its hidden meanings. The “fancy pictures” and portraits of a paying clientele was one thing, though, depicting poor folk in their sensitively enhanced habitat was quite another, since those who mattered were sufficiently touched but preferred to hang Reynolds’ works done in the “Grand Manner” in their own sumptuous dwellings. Nonetheless, Gainsborough’s farewell to the traditional hierarchy of genres with history paintings residing right on the top was groundbreaking enough to point the Romantics on their way, even if his very own style was of somewhat small consequence in art history. His manifestations of sensitivity in portraits as well as landscapes were quite a different matter, though.

“Girl with Pigs” (1781-82) said by Sir Joshua Reynolds to be "the best picture he ever painted".

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