It is said that Sir Joshua at an Academy dinner gave "the health of Mr. Gainsborough, the greatest landscape painter of the day," to which Wilson, in his blunt, grumbling way, retorted, "Ay, and the greatest portrait painter, too." In Gainsborough's own time, the world of Art patrons seem to have employed his talents as a portrait painter, but to have disregarded his landscape art. Beechey said that "in Gainsborough's house in Pall Mall the landscapes stood ranged in long lines from his hall to his painting-room, and that those who came to sit to him for his portraits, on which he was chiefly occupied, rarely deigned to honour them with a look as they passed them." After his death, however, and the eulogium Reynolds had pronounced on his landscapes and rustic children, these came to be considered his finest works, and it is usual now to speak of him as a landscape rather than as a portrait painter. But it is more than doubtful whether Wilson did not judge more truly of his talent than Sir Joshua; and without wishing to place him above Reynolds in that painter's peculiar branch, it is certain that Gainsborough, in his finest portraits, formed a style equally original, and produced works that are every way worthy to take rank with those of the great President. They contrast with the latter in being more silvery and pure, and in the absence of that impasto and richness in which Reynolds indulged, but his figures are surrounded by air and light, and his portraits generally are easy and graceful without affectation....

The Market-Cart. Gainsborough

The Market-Cart.

Reynolds says: "It is difficult to determine whether Gainsborough's portraits were most admirable for exact truth of resemblance, or his landscapes for a portrait-like representation of Nature,"—a strange judgment, written more with a view to a well-rounded period than to any true criticism on his rival's landscape art. It is certainly true that Gainsborough put aside altogether the early foundation of Dutch landscape on which he had begun to build, and took an entirely original view of Nature, both as to treatment and handling. Yet in the sense in which the artists of our day paint "portrait-like representations of Nature," Gainsborough's art was anything but portrait-like. It has been objected to the great Italian landscape painters that they did not discriminate between one tree and another, but indulged in a "painter's tree." There is far more variety in those of our native artist, yet it would puzzle a critic to say what his trees really are, and to point out in his landscapes the distinctive differences between oak and beech, and elm. The weeds, too, in his foregrounds, have neither form nor species. On the margins of his brooks or pools a few sword-shaped dashes tell of reeds and rushes; on the banks of his road-side some broad-leaved forms catch the straggling sun-ray, but he cared little to go into botanical minutiæ, or to enable us to tell their kind. His rocks are certainly not truly stratified or geologically correct—how should they be?—he studied them, perhaps, in his painting-room from broken stones and bits of coal. The truth is, however, that he gave us more of Nature than any merely imitative rendering could do. As the great portrait painter looks beyond the features of his sitter to give the mind and character of the man, often thereby laying himself open to complaint as to his mere likeness painting; so the great landscape painter will at all times sink individual imitation in seeking to fill us with the greater truths of his art. It may be the golden sunset or the breezy noon, the solemn breadth of twilight, or the silvery freshness of morn—the something of colour, of form, of light and shade, floating rapidly away, that makes the meanest and most commonplace view at times startle us with wonder at its beauty, when treated by the true artist.

And did he study such merely from broken stones and pieces of coal, from twigs and weeds in his painting-room? Vain idea! these were but the memoria technica, that served to call up in his mind the thoughts he had fed on in many a lonely walk and leisure moment, when they of common clay plodded on and saw nothing—brooded on with a nature tuned to the harmonies of colour and of form, organized in a high degree to receive and retain impressions of beauty; and gifted with the power to place vividly before us by his art objects which had so delighted and pleased himself. Does any one think otherwise—let him try what can be got out of stones and coals; let him try how his memory will aid him, with such feeble helps as broken twigs and dry mosses, and then he may be able to appreciate, in a degree, how this man had won the mastery of paint and canvas and turned their dross into the fine gold of true Art.