Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Cottage Door 1785c.

Thomas Gainsborough RA (172788)

The Cottage Door, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
58 x 47 inches 147.3 x 121.3 cm
Probably the artist's posthumous sale Schomberg House March May 1789 lot 78 A. landscape with a Cottage, Figures, &c or lot 69 A Landscape with a Cottage and Figures.; C. Bowdler Gipps, Canterbury; His sale Christie''s December 10th 1910 lot 9; Private Collection Texas to 2004.
Probably Schomberg House 1789
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We are grateful to Dr John Hayes for confirming the attribution to Thomas Gainsborough and for dating this painting to the mid 1780s.

Recent conservation has confirmed this painting, newly emerged from an American private collection, to be an autograph variant of one of the artist's best known and loved compositions, popularly known since the mid nineteenth century as The Cottage Door of which the prime version is now in the collection of the Huntington Museum and Library, San Marino. The Cottage Door is considered one of the artist's most satisfying ''fancy pictures'' and the supreme expression of Gainsborough's concept of ideal landscape.
The broad duplication of a subject and composition is far from rare in Gainsborough's oeuvre at this date. Some two years after Gainsborough exhibited the Huntington version of The Cottage Door he painted two variants of Wooded Landscape with Peasants crossing a Ford (Private Collection and Lehigh University, Pennsylvania) which reproduce the same composition although at a size of 38 x 48 l/2 inches and 27 x 35 inches respectively. Beyond their dimensions the two paintings differ in the overall handling, which is lighter and freer in the large canvas, and in the application of light which has been darkened in the smaller picture, thus creating a sense that a different time of day is depicted. This distinction between variants applies throughout Gainsborough's work of this period. A smaller version of the National Gallery of Scotland's Rocky Wooded Landscape with Dell and Weir, painted c.1782 3 employs the same composition as the larger picture - with small variations in staffage - but this picture (on loan to the Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery) is expressed in a much more rapid and sketchy manner than the larger piece, which is more finished and which displays a deep, rich intensity in light and colouring. A further example shows that a freer, lighter version need not have been preparatory to the full richness of the major piece, since a smaller repetition of the Rocky Wooded Upland Landscape with Shepherd and scattered Sheep 1783 (Bayerische Landesbank, Munich on loan to the Neue Pinakothek) in the collection of the Pennington-Mellor Charity Trust, London is dated by Hayes to the year following the execution of the original. Hayes notes that the smaller picture is sketchier than the prime version, but accepts the attribution and asks ''who but the artist himself would have executed a looser, rather than exact, version of the original.''1 A further example illustrates the way in which Gainsborough's repetition of a composition was a means whereby the painter could adapt and improve on the earlier conception. In the two versions of the f.1786 Wooded Landscape with Herdsmen and Cows near a Pool the artist makes some conspicuous alterations to the details of the composition, whilst leaving the overall form the painting unchanged. These improvements the replacement of a park gate and wall in the version in Tate Britain with a country cottage and figures, and the addition of scattered sheep are plainly in line with the painter's wish to enhance the idyllic, pastoral mood of the painting. It is clear than Gainsborough did not regard his most satisfying compositions as static subjects, but was always exploring possibilities for improvement and for increasing the intensity of the painterly and lyrical effects he sought to achieve. Even on the rare occasion that he produced an exact copy to order, he was able to explore differences in interpretation and mood between the first and second versions. An example is the copy of The Woodcutter's Return (Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle) that he painted for his Italian friend the musician Felice Giardini. The later painting (Private Collection, Geneva) although superficially identical with the Rutland version does not display the same sunset glow as the original and the execution of the foliage of the principal tree has altered, becoming ''more rhythmical and less broken in outline.''2

It is satisfying, therefore, to observe key differences between the execution of the present variant of The Cottage Door and the Huntingdon picture. The most conspicuous development lies in the treatment of the family grouped around the figure of a young mother at the cottage door. In the exhibited painting the figures are an unavoidable focus of the viewer's attention and therefore of their reading of the painting.. It is the prominence and treatment of the figures, however, and even the adaptation that Gainsborough made to the composition during the execution of the Huntington picture adaptations that he enhanced in painting the present landscape that cast a fascinating light on his purpose in painting this composition. Although the figure group appears the focus of the large upright landscape, recent conservation of the Huntington picture reveals that the artist expanded the canvas by 12 *A inches to the top and seven inches to the bottom, increasing the majestic sense of the landscape space in which the figures are Placed3. Already at an early stage it is clear that Gainsborough wished to reduce the dominance of the human element to the advantage of landscape.4 In painting the present picture he maintained what was clearly a very satisfactory proportion, and by comparison to the Huntingdon picture even enhanced it, by reducing the proportion of figure group on the painted surface by a further one tenth. Equally, the degree of finish and characterisation is absent from these sketchier and more plausible peasants. An important detail that emerged from x-ray photography of the Huntington landscape was that the mother's ''Devonshire'' tete was an addition, and that her previous hairstyle was simpler and flatter. Whilst the hairstyle in our painting is still loftier than the painter's original intention, it is also simpler and more roughly suggested, almost being wrapped about her head like a scarf. Although in general form the hairstyle appears to conform to that shown in the Huntington picture, the painter has returned to the concept of artless simplicity that was his original intention.

When considered along with other figure-in-landscape compositions of the 1780s, one can see how this painting conforms to a tendency apparent in other works, and that this painting represents the evolution of Gainsborough's preference for the emergence of landscape-as-subject rather than as an artful and harmonious background for figure groups and portraiture. From a conventional standpoint that landscape is a setting for narrative or portrait painting, many later works show that the painter on the contrary -appears to have regarded figure groups as a pretext for exercises in his own grand manner landscape subjects, or at the most as equal and uncompeting elements. The picture exhibited in 1780 was obliged to conform to expected norms of content and finish for display at the Academy and - it is to be presumed - for sale to a conventional buying public. In the works that Gainsborough produced in his studio and which in very many cases - remained there until his death, he would appear not to have placed himself under the same strictures, and the different emphasis of these works is telling.

In the present example, it is not possible to distinguish the figures as the subject of the painting above the landscape that frames them. Indeed, in terms of movement and drama they are very much a subsidiary part of the whole. The pyramidal group highlighted against the cottage wall, on which a strong light is falling, is a necessary, harmonious counterpoint to the Claudian recession through to the trees in the distance on the left of the picture. They are anchored in space by the repoussoir dead tree that leans across in front of them, but they are so much less the subject of the picture at this stage, one feels, than the nervous energy of the foliage that moves above them, captured in rapid hatching brushstrokes, the foaming falling water the accurate depiction of which being an effect that Gainsborough is pleased to demonstrate elsewhere in his landscapes as well as in the sea pictures of the same decade and the dramatic effects of light in the sky and in its effect on the fields and foliage. Comparison of the two paintings will also reveal that this diminution of the figure group is not the only adaptation that Gainsborough has made to the composition, and that the character of the landscape has undergone a subtle but significant alteration. There is a sense that the painter has shifted the time of day. The light plays more strongly in the present painting, and the branches of the trees above have been moved slightly, now no longer touching above the perspective to the left, so that there is a feeling of earlier morning to the later work. The leaves on the trees to the left are also less densely painted in, allowing more light through which enhances the greater illumination.

The overall tendency to reduce the figure element in landscape paintings can be observed in other works at this date, not merely in paintings of straightforwardly rural subjects but in portraiture. The oval double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland 1783 85 (Royal Collection) employs an unusual format whereby the three figures are shown dwarfed to the bottom of the painting by a vast expanse of expressionistic foliage that represents Windsor Great Park. It is telling that in this painting, as in the contemporary The Mall 1783 (Frick Collection, New York) which also present reduced figures in a grandiose landscape setting, that the execution of the figures'' costume is as far as possible, indistinguishable save in colour from the execution of the foliage. Despite the eye-catching characterisation of The Mall and the sober portraiture of The Duke and Duchess of Cumberland their subject as paintings is the same as that of The Cottage Door. All of these works are best to understood as exercises in pure painting, in the evocation of light and mood, more than in depiction of subject. Like these examples, the present variant of The Cottage Door is, therefore, a freer exercise in Gainsborough''s lyrical appreciation of the possibilities of paint than the earlier work produced for exhibition. Conservation has confirmed that the paintwork is more rapid, more sketchy and more thinly applied than in the prime work. It displays even more than the Huntington painting die artist's revolutionary, Rubensian yet also strikingly expressionistic technique, which impressed contemporaries as new and forced them to seek new terms of artistic appreciation for this unique vision. Dr Hayes compares the ''fresh, loose, high-keyed Rubensian handling''5 exhibited in the present picture, and comparing it to such examples as Hounds Hunting a Fox (Kenwood Iveagh Bequest) dates this landscape similarly to the mid 1780s. Bearing in mind that the Huntington picture remained in the painter's studio until sold in 1786, it is not surprising that Gainsborough ''should have wished to paint a repetition of it in his new style of the 1780s. Just as Gainsborough copied Van Dyck for his own pleasure, so he must have enjoyed copying one of his own great masterpieces to produce something totally different in tone, mood and vivacity.''6 Clearly this painting represents the subject as the painter alone chose to see it, unconstrained by conventions of exhibition, and demonstrates undiluted what Reynolds perceived as Gainsborough's ''kind of magick'',7 whereby the viewer can in the perceptive words of a writer in 1779 ''never find more upon his canvas than ideas... all is soft yet forcible.''8

1. John Hayes The landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough Cornell University Press 1982 Vol. II p.516
2. ibid.
3. Robyn Asleson Shelley M. Bennett Melinda McCurdy Elizabeth Pergam British Paintings at the Huntington Yale University Press 2001 p.112
4. ibid.
5. Correspondence with Dr John Hayes November 3ri 2004
6. ibid.
1. Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA quoted in Gainsborough Marvin Myrone and Michael Rosenthal eds. Tate 2002
8. Roger Shanhagan The Exhibition, Or a second Anticipation, Being Remarks on the principal Works to be Exhibited next Month at the Royal Academy 1779 quoted in Myrone and Rosenthal 2002 />10. This ''review'' was in fact a spoof published before any of the works to be exhibited were known. As Myrone and Rosenthal note, however, its observations about the work of Gainsborough as well as about several other leading artists of the days were ''perceptive and sophisticated.''

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