Thursday, December 4, 2014

Landscape with a View of a Distant Village, by Thomas Gainsborough (late 1740s or early 1750s)

We continue our look at the truly stellar show at the Frick Collection here in New York featuring 10 masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery with a picture by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788).

Gainsborough was born in humble circumstances.  His father was a weaver in Suffolk, and not much is known about his mother.  However, he seemed to be one of a brood of creative children: his brother John (known as Scheming Jack) was a well-known designer of curiosities, while his brother Humphrey invented the method of condensing steam in a separate vessel. 

Thomas left home for London in 1740 to study art; his mentors included Hubert Gravelot, Francis Hayman and William Hogarth.  He married Margaret Burr in 1746, and they had two daughters. 

A move to Bath in 1759 was a great career boon, as there he became a fashionable society painter.  He was soon exhibiting in London, and, in 1759, he became a founding member of the Royal Academy.  Despite founder-status, he had a tempestuous relationship with the organization, and he would sometimes pull his work from upcoming exhibitions.

Thomas and family returned to London in 1774, where he painted the royal family.  He soon became enamored with landscape painting, and his later years were devoted to depictions of the English countryside.  (He is credited as one of the founders of the British landscape school.)  He grew to love painting landscapes more than portraits, and his landscapes are among his finest achievements. His career was cut short with a diagnosis of cancer, and he succumbed in 1788.

Gainsborough was a meticulous painter, but he painted with great speed and fluidity.  His palette was generally light, with brushstrokes that were precise without being fussy.

Your correspondent must confess that he considers Landscape with a View of a Distant Village on show at the Frick as among the weaker selections in the exhibition.  The composition is perhaps too polished and too … calculated, leaving nothing for the eye to linger upon.  Though it follows the strain of naturalism popular at the time, the eye is disturbed by the overwhelming symmetry of the piece, as if calculated more for commercial reproduction that personal contemplation.

More off-putting still is the placement of various elements, as if Gainsborough were running through a list of crowd-pleasers necessary for a picture.  Pastoral lovers?  Check.  Strategically placed cattle?  Check.  Dog?  Check.  Even the clouds and trees look more like stock figures hustled out for effect rather than a reflection of either mood or reality.

In person, this rather wide picture further disappoints because the eye roams without direction.  As demonstrated in our posts on Constable and Velasquez, artists gifted in composition keep the eye in constant movement.  There is nothing in the composition to pull the eye along, and the effect is rather-well painted elements that just lie there without dynamism.  It’s not a bad painting … it is merely uninteresting.

It is particularly disappointing when compared to the truly champion Constable hanging on the same wall.  There, Constable’s fecund imagination takes a similar theme, and creates a picture that is teeming with life.  Indeed, the composition suffered to some extent by sheer virtue of Constable’s ability to render the scene real.  Both painters were men of talent and genius, but Constable was a painter of vision. 

More from the Frick Collection tomorrow!

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