The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

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JUNE 2018 Issue

Experiments in Drawing

Thomas Gainsborough, Hilly Landscape with Cows on the Road, ca. 1780. Black chalk with smudging, white chalk applied wet, on wove paper. The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

On View
Morgan Library
May 11 – August 19, 2018
New York

When Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) died, the entryway to his London house was filled with unsold landscapes. Gainsborough made his name and fortune as a portrait painter, so his contemporaries were probably inclined to overlook his landscapes as a sidelight. Now, this concise, dazzling show of sixteen drawings (primarily landscapes) corrects this view, establishing Gainsborough as the progenitor of an English landscape tradition running from Constable to Turner and, ultimately, David Hockney. It also shows him to be a master draughtsman, whose experimentation with materials placed him at the forefront of technical innovation. While Gainsborough was a superb painter, his experiments in drawing techniques, materials, and landscape subject transform him; we can no longer regard him merely as an 18th-century artist. He was a one-man avant-garde.

The problem with the history of English painting is France. French domination of the art historical narrative, starting with Poussin, reinforced the idea that English art was either produced by foreigners, like Hans Holbein or Anthony Van Dyck (who both worked in England but were born elsewhere), or by resolutely eccentric individuals, like William Hogarth, who deliberately turned against continental tradition. The idea that there were no English artists, or that the few who did exist were isolated on their island, is utter nonsense, of course. Although it is true that English artists are curiously individualistic, and seem to amalgamate the lessons of continental masters or schools without giving up an identity rooted in English life.

As a portrait painter, Gainsborough had to absorb the lessons of Van Dyck because he set the standard for portraitists in England. There was simply no avoiding him. But, it was when Gainsborough asserted his own identity by incorporating into his art the kind of landscape that would later be defined as picturesque, that he came into his own artistically. Gainsborough's relationship with nature was complex. He did not rely on direct, plein-air contact with nature. Instead, he “composed” landscapes in his studio—using coal, cork, and even broccoli—combining his own imagined vistas with elements from 17th-century Dutch landscape painters like Jan Wijnants or Jacob Van Ruisdael. Later, in 1783, he would follow the then-current fashion to get out into nature, and make his way to the mountainous Lake District in northwest England in pursuit of the picturesque. It was, perhaps, without consciously thinking of it that Gainsborough brought this new vision of nature into his art. The picturesque, which emerges as a peculiarly English aesthetic category in landscape design starting in the early 18th century, sets aside French geometrical gardening in favor of irregularity, surprise, and meandering curves without the awe inspiring mountains and chasms of the sublime that would enthrall Romanticism a generation later. This defines Gainsborough's notion of landscape.

We see the picturesque enacted here in three superb drawings from around 1780: Wooded Landscape with Horseman, Figures and Bridge, Hilly Landscape with Cows on the Road, and Landscape with Horse and Cart Descending a Hill. In these, Gainsborough avoids the typical Dutch composition—a central road, bracketed by trees (repoussoirs) leading the eye to the vanishing point. In fact, there is no vanishing point. The eye, as it would be in a real picturesque vista, is led to and fro, up and down, instead of toward a distant spot, as in Landscape with Horse and Cart, whose composition is made up of opposed angles rather than a perspective. The most radical of the three, Hilly Landscape with Cows on the Road, is dominated by a central triangle. The cows look as if they might slide rather than amble down the hill. This distortion is repeated in Wooded Landscape, in which the background figures are larger than the foreground ones. (It is possible that Gainsborough used a Claude glass, or black mirror, that so many artists and poets carried out into nature so that they could turn life into art by looking at its reflection on the darkened surface.)

It is through drawing, rather than painting, that Gainsborough is best able to invent, rather than replicate, nature. This virtuoso performance of drawing as creation is expressed most forcefully in Lady Walking in a Garden (ca. 1785). As with his early landscapes, Gainsborough needed no living model to produce this masterpiece, and instead used a doll. (We know this because four other full-length figure studies exist related to this one.) The miracle here is complex: the imaginary lady has a personality, a kind of thoughtful aloofness, despite being almost engulfed in her wide-brimmed hat and astonishing dress. A rococo confection? A bit, but the ensemble is rendered ethereal by Gainsborough's feathery strokes of chalk, what the painter Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough’s rival, called his “odd scratches and marks” in a speech given shortly after Gainsborough’s death. As the show’s illuminating catalogue explains, Gainsborough's eccentric style in drawing—his “experiments” involving chalks, smudging, milk, and varnish to create new effects in landscape depiction—completely transforms our received idea of his role in art history. Gainsborough's absorption of the picturesque opens the door to modernity, to the liberation of art from representation.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

All Issues