- Extended Catalogue Entry
by Thomas Gainsborough
oil on canvas, circa 1759
30 in. x 25 in. (762 mm x 635 mm)
Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1965
Sitterback to top
- Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait and landscape painter. Sitter in 8 portraits, Artist associated with 262 portraits.
Artistback to top
- Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait and landscape painter. Artist associated with 262 portraits, Sitter in 8 portraits.
This portraitback to top
Allocated by H.M. Government, 1965.
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 46
- Audio Guide
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- Ingamells, John, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, 2004, p. 176
- Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 93 Read entry
David Piper describes Gainsborough’s late work as being ‘almost airborne’; this extraordinary self-portrait seems to hover between the three periods of his artist development. The work embodies the innocence of his Suffolk period (from 1748), the modelling apparent in his Bath period (from 1759) and a landscape backdrop, loose and free, that prefigures his late London style (from 1774). Gainsborough was known to set up still-life groupings of real twigs and branches in his studio from which to work. The background to this painting is unmistakably Gainsborough, revealing his passion for nature.
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 99
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 98 Read entry
Modest, informal, approachable and amusing, Gainsborough was the opposite of Reynolds in temperament. There is an engaging directness in his gaze and in the looseness of the brushwork that suggests, but no more than suggests, autumn trees in the background. This self-portrait dates from the early part of his career, when he was making a living as a painter in Suffolk, living in Ipswich and making friends with people in the neighbourhood. In autumn 1759 (about the time the self-portrait was painted) he moved to Bath and a grander manner.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 235
- Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 204
- Solkin, David H, Gainsborough's Family Album, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 22 November 2018- 3 February 2019), p. 102
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 107 Read entry
Thomas Gainsborough was, with Joshua Reynolds, the leading portrait painter in eighteenth-century Britain. Nevertheless, he felt trapped by his profession and preferred to paint landscapes: ‘If the People with their damn’d Faces could but let me alone a little’, he recorded in a letter of 25 May 1768 to his friend James Unwin. Often Gainsborough managed to combine the two, as seen here, by introducing hints of landscape into the backgrounds of his portraits. In a period when idealisation was highly prized in portraiture, Gainsborough eschewed references to classical and Renaissance art and chose to paint his sitters in contemporary fashions. He also regarded likeness to be ‘the principal beauty and intention of a portrait’, as he stated in a letter of 13 April 1771 to William, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth. Unusually among his peers, he painted the costumes and backgrounds of his portraits without the use of assistants, employing the distinctive six-foot-long paintbrushes with which he achieved his feathery style of painting.
In contrast to Reynolds, his main rival in portraiture, Gainsborough was modest, informal and amiable. This early self-portrait, which depicts him with an unpretentious and direct gaze, was painted shortly before he moved to Bath, where he established a fashionable studio in 1759.
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1759back to top
Current affairsBritish Museum opens to the public at Montagu House, based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are created.
David Garrick writes Heart of Oak, the official march of the Royal Navy, to celebrate a year of British victories.
Art and scienceFirst volume of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is published.
Artist Thomas Gainsborough moves to Bath.
A Journey Through Europe; or, A Play of Geography, the earliest British board game, is produced and sold.
Clockmaker John Harrison produces his 'No. 1 sea watch', the first successful marine chronometer.
InternationalSeven Years' War: British commander General James Wolfe is victorious at the Battle of Quebec and takes Quebec city, but dies in the engagement. At the Battle of Quiberon Bay, off the coast of Brittany, the British fleet are victorious over the French.
Portuguese expel the Jesuits from Brazil, beginning a widespread reaction against the order in Catholic Europe.
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