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Eighteenth-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough never set foot in America, but his influence reached deep into the former colonies and persisted long after his death in 1788.

Gainsborough was a gifted painter who shunned the academic conventions of his era and developed a highly individualized, rapid painting style. Like most successful painters of his era, he made his reputation in the portrait trade but turned to landscapes late in his career. American painters like Gilbert Stuart (who gave is George Washington’s face in the dollar bill) and John Singleton Copley, who studied in the Mother Country, were heavily influenced by Gainsborough. Later American painters who studied abroad, and those who learned from them, spent time with Gainsborough’s works as well. No small part of the history of American painting can be attributed to Gainsborough, at least indirectly.

River Landscape (Thomas Gainsborough, 1768 – 1770)

Gainsborough’s landscapes lack the theatricality that we find in the 19th-Century American landscapes of Cole or Church, but the idea that simple landscapes were suitable subject matter for serious painting was a novel one when he started painting them in the first place. He’s palate was noticeably more muted that that the American’s favored, but the placement of people low in the foreground, like in River Landscape above, was a technique adopted by the American’s, albeit with more attention to scale. We can see Gainsborough’s fingerprints on American canvases of the 1800s if we look carefully.

His portrait work is pretty spectacular in it own right and is similarly reflected in American art. His painting The Honorable Richard Savage Nassau de Zuylestein, M.P., standing nearly eight feet high, lords over one of the galleries at the Detroit Institute of Art and is shocking in gaudiness. That dude needs a fashion consultant. Check him out when if you get the chance.

The Honorable Richard Savage Nassau de Zuylestein, M.P., (Thomas Gainsborough, 1778 – 1780)


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