Thomas Gainsborough had the advantage of being one of the first romantic men in an affluent world, according to the British Art Center’s new exhibit, “Sensation and Sensibility.”
While traditional artists were focusing on portraiture and realism, Gainsborough looked at the work of Adriaen van Ostade and other Dutch folk painters, drawing his inspiration from their depiction of stories and legends. He enjoyed the mythical aspects of their work, focusing not only on the fantasy world, but also on the characters within it – often poor but noble figures.
At any other time in history he would have been doomed to the life of a failed artist dwelling in a laughable fantasy world, but Gainsborough lived during an interesting historical crossroads. When he began his career as an artist, the focus of intellectual thought played to his strengths: the simple and fantastic.
The artist’s love of fantasy is reflected throughout the British Art Center’s exhibit. Beneath the gentle lighting of the BAC’s skylights, gallery-goers can experience the environment that inspired Gainsborough’s translucent techniques while they gaze upon the tableaus of wit and whimsy that he must have seen in his youth.
Viewers can also experience Gainsborough’s paintings the way they were meant to be displayed — the BAC has installed set pieces that simulate the art environs of his era. One cloth tent holding a Gainsborough piece gleams with candlelight reflected by an array of mirrors, encouraging visitors to leave the museum behind in favor of this bygone world.
Gainsborough’s abilities as an artist are difficult to dispute. His eye for detail infuses every brushstroke, as though he lived the philosophy of finding meaning in small details. Observing the canvas up close, each leaf, every titular cottage and every fold of clothing contains deliberate snapshots of movement and natural whimsy.
The artist’s unusually thin palette matches his sentiments perfectly. He adds watery paint, layer by layer, until a gauzy sheen is cast over his image, creating a serene, fantastic aura over his rural subjects.
Despite the whimsical nature of his paintings, Gainsborough was a meticulous craftsman who was noted for spending equal time in the furthest corner of the canvas as he did in the center — each “fancy picture,” as he called them, became a still frame, a snapshot of his fantasy world.
More astounding than Gainsborough’s skill as an artist is his impact on the British arts community. His paintings struck a chord with socialites and political elites in seventeenth-century England, and his early paintings of landscapes were incredibly popular. His clients were mostly wealthy aristocrats who pined after the perceived nobility of the poor, despite their difficulties. Because of the immense popularity of his paintings, Gainsborough’s forays into his fantastical images accounted for the increase in his landscape paintings, instead of the traditional portraiture.
The mixture of fantasy and reality represented in Gainsborough’s work is elegantly highlighted in the BAC’s exhibit, which is on display until the end of the year. His depictions of ideal countryside, imbued with a humanistic focus on his subjects, offer a sense that art can become more than just an image.