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.

But in the history of British Art, the great merit of Gainsborough is, to have broken us entirely loose from old conventions. Wilson had turned aside from Dutch art to ennoble landscape by selecting from the higher qualities of Italian art; but Gainsborough early discarded all he had learned from the bygone schools, and gave himself up wholly to Nature; he was capable of delicate handling and minute execution, but he resolutely cast them aside lest any idol should interfere between him and his new religion. There may be traced a lingering likeness in his landscapes to those of Rubens; but this arose more from his generalization of details, his sinking the parts in the whole, than to any imitation of the great Fleming. It is like the recollection of some sweet melody which the musician weaves into his theme, all unconscious that it is a memory and not a child of his own creation.

The pictures of Gainsborough, on the whole, stand better far than those by Reynolds. "Landscape with Cattle," a picture belonging to the Marquis of Lansdowne, is lovely for colour and freshness; it has been lined and repaired, but evidently had parted widely in the lights. Could any closeness of individual imitation give the truth, beauty of colour, and luminous sunlight of this picture? It somewhat reminds one of Zuccarelli, but how completely has Gainsborough sucked the honey and left the comb of the master! Viewed near, this picture is somewhat loose in texture, and hesitating in execution; the colour obtained by semi-transparents, as yellow-ochre, terra-verte, and ultramarine; while viewed at a proper distance, it is in perfect harmony.

In examining the landscapes of this painter, much must, however, be allowed for the present state of some of his works. Many are covered with a dark-brown varnish, obscuring the silvery freshness of their first state. This has cracked up in the darks and quite changed them. The Market-Cart and the Watering-Place, as well as others in the National collection, are in a very different condition to that in which they left the easel. The world, however, has become so conservative, and has such belief in the picture-vamper's "golden tones," that so they must remain. It would be most impolitic to touch them until they have become too dark to be seen at all.

A Century of Painters of the English School (London, 1866).