The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1727.05
Place of Birth: Sudbury
Date of Death: 1788.08.02
Place of Death: London


Thomas Gainsborough was an English painter, draughtsman and printmaker. His father John Gainsborough was a clothier and crêpe-maker and then a postmaster following bankruptcy in 1733. Gainsborough was one of eight children, having three brothers and four sisters.


Gainsborough was a contemporary of Joshua Reynolds and rivalled him in artistic importance. He was known for his elegant portraits of society figures e.g. Honourable Mrs Thomas Graham (1777; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), and his idyllic images of the British countryside, e.g. Wooded Landscape with Woodcutter (1755; Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire). His paintings show a marked debt to the old master tradition of Titian, Claude, Rubens and Watteau. He was among the first to experiment with the new printmaking techniques of aquatint and soft-ground etching.

In the late 1860s Whistler became aware of the painting techniques of Gainsborough through the National Portrait Exhibitions at the South Kensington Museum and this had an immense influence on his own painting experiments in thin glazes. According to T. R. Way, the colour scheme of Whistler's The Blue Girl: Portrait of Miss Elinor Leyland (YMSM 111) was inspired by Gainsborough's Blue Boy. The paintings of Gainsborough also appear to have influenced works such as Whistler's Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland (YMSM 106) and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (YMSM 129) with their carefully observed costumes. Gainsborough's The Mall in St James' Park (1785; Frick, New York), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1876, may well have inspired Whistler's evocative depictions of Cremorne Gardens. Like Gainsborough, Whistler would use brushes that were a several feet in length.


Woodall, M., (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1961; Hayes, J., The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols, London, 1970; Hayes, J., Gainsborough as Printmaker (London, 1971); J. Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols, London, 1982; Rosenthal, Michael, 'Thomas Gainsborough', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 1 March 2002).