Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman, 1750s 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of a Gentleman, 1750s, Thomas Gainsborough RA
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Oil on canvas
18th Century
25¾ x 19 inches, 65.5 x 48 cm
 
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This work is one of Gainsborough’s earliest individual portraits, and dates from his ‘Ipswich period’ of the 1750s. It is a rare example from perhaps the most crucial years of Gainsborough’s career, when his style developed into the unique manner that earned him fame. In this work, one can see the beginnings of Gainsborough’s distinctive feathery brushstrokes, swiftly applied to the canvas, which helped convey the movement and vigour so evident in all his portraits. This rapid and bold approach, first seen in the artist’s work in the early 1750s, marked a new direction in artistic technique, and became the principal feature of Gainsborough’s oeuvre.

To understand the importance of Gainsborough’s new and distinctive style, we must first understand the artistic world of the mid-eighteenth century. Gainsborough’s innovative approach to portraiture could only have evolved in an age when all the traditional rules of painting were being questioned. Though his innate skill can never be doubted – for early works such as ‘Cornard Wood’ [National Gallery], probably begun when still a schoolchild, attest to his prodigious talent – it was as a pupil of Francis Hayman in London in the 1740s that Gainsborough found himself at the cutting edge of British art. As the next generation of artists replaced the Dahls and Knellers of a more Augustan age, they began to produce new art, such as the conversation piece, for new audiences, most notable the increasingly prosperous middle classes. Gainsborough was fortunate to find himself at the centre of this rapid creative change. It was an environment thick with the influence of Hogarth’s determined Englishness and Gravelot’s innovative ‘Rococco’. The stage was set for a completely novel approach to art, and onto it walked two of the most experimental artists in English art; Reynolds and Gainsborough.
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