WEARY of his fame and his metropolitan entourage, Gainsborough said, “I’m
sick of portraits; I wish very much to take my viol da gamba and walk off to
some sweet village, where I can paint landscapes and enjoy the fag end of life
in quietness and ease.”
A self-trained artist, he was lured from the Suffolk
lanes into the fashionable circles of Bath and London. He was everything the
imperious Reynolds was not: a true Bohemian, fond of music and tramp
fiddlers, generous and lighthearted, an enchanting personality-one of those
rare souls whom the polite world takes into its bosom.
In 1777, he exhibited
in London The Honorable Mrs. Graham, and Sir Joshua was no longer the
kingpin of portrait painters.
The portrait of Lady Graham summarizes Gainsborough’s resplendence in
a field he did not choose to conquer. It established him as the creator of un
adulterated charm, a position unchallenged in British art.
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The charm of the
lady is the real thing, neither strained nor mechanically concocted; and the
charm is the pure and spontaneous emanation of Gainsborough’s personality.
Many valuable qualities an artist may acquire by forethought and labor-but
not this quality.
In his gay and passionate nature flowed a spring of delicacy
which pervades all his portraits, and which shines out with particular luster
in his studies of women.
He was more than a dazzling executant handling oils
with the directness and freedom of crayon; more than a clever face-painter
who never missed a likeness-he sensitized his women with the irresistible
fascination of his own personality.
Against his inclinations he was destined
to express to perfection perhaps the most coveted quality in portraiture.
Gainsborough was oblivious of the heroic: to him women were women
they fluttered his heart, and he painted them with loveliness and ‘with sex. He
did not flatter them; if they did not touch his sensibilities, he had no luck.
the presence of great ladies, even the formidable personages-he retained
his natural deportment and his normal speaking voice. Sir Joshua Reynolds
painted Mrs. Siddons, not as a woman but as the
Tragic Muse squired by
Furies; Gainsborough painted her as a woman of character with a beautiful
face, and while busy with the portrait, which gave him trouble (for he was
not a finished draftsman), he exclaimed, “Damn your nose, Madam! There’s
no end to it!”