SOME writers on the 18th-century English artist Thomas Gainsborough have suggested that portraiture was his trade, while landscape painting was his pleasure. The second is certainly true, but the first - if it means that his portraiture was therefore pedestrian and unfelt - is far from being the case. Gainsborough complained sometimes of being trapped by the business of ``face painting.'' The quality of his output unquestionably varied. Some of his portraits seem less than inspired and a little routine. But it is really by comparison with his own most inspired portraits that they seem so.
This unevenness was apparently part of his character. He said of himself: ``I am the most inconsistent, changeable being, so full of fitts & starts.'' Sometimes he would not paint for several weeks, but when he started again he went at it with tremendous animation. In his mature and later paintings he painted quickly, with a light, sure touch.
The painter didn't prepare his portraits, on the whole, by means of drawings or sketches, preferring the spontaneity of working straight onto the canvas with the model present. The result is a sense of immediacy and movement which seems to capture something brimmingly alive. His younger daughter, Margaret, recorded that ``his colours were very liquid, and if he did not hold the palette right would run over.''
Gainsborough once wrote to a client about the importance of not losing in a painting ``the touch of the pencil [i.e., brush], which is harder to preserve than smoothness.'' But it is not only his wonderful, quicksilver brushwork that gives his best portraits - the one shown here of his wife when she was 50 is a superb example - their freshness and life. He also, when the character of his sitters took his interest, had an almost magical way of appraising their psyche.
All this points to what is quite apparent in the works themselves: that he was heart-and-soul a portrait painter par excellence, and invested this specialist art with a sensibility and vision that are quite out of the ordinary.
With portraits of the rich and fashionable it wasn't always possible for him to look at them with complete candor and depict them with frankness. But this was not the case in painting his own family. Some of his subtlest - and most understanding - evocations of character are portraits of his wife and his two daughters. He loves them, and he sizes them up, both. He feels for them and with them, and delights in them.
His style developed and changed radically over his career, as can be traced in the pictures shown here of himself and his family.
His early manner was partly derived from his training in London by the French designer and engraver Gravelot. The picture of himself and his wife with their eldest surviving daughter, aged 2 or 3, painted in 1750-51, is typical in its rather formal informality, its period stiffness trying hard to look casual, of the earlier Gainsborough. He used studio dolls for his figures, as was usual practice, and the faces seem to have been fitted into readily prepared ovals.
But what really stands out is his desire to demonstrate with the skill of his brush his fondness for and pride in his family. That same fondness, mingled with an intimate knowledge of their characters, is found in the no fewer than five surviving double portraits he painted of his daughters, Mary and Margaret, or ``Molly and the Captain,'' as he nicknamed them.
There is a family-album aspect to these pictures, showing his children at different stages of growing up, until, in the last, they are elegantly dressed young women. But there is always much more to their double portraits than that. In many of his paintings of them, at least one of the two daughters always turns to look her father directly in the eye.
It's as if he was encouraging them to look at him with the same intelligence and perceptivity that he was using to portray them. It's as if he is saying to them, ``You are artists too.''
It was, in fact, Gainsborough's aim to make his daughters into professionally competent landscape painters. He didn't want them to be merely ``lady amateurs.'' He wanted them, he wrote in 1764, to be ``Somewhat above the Common Fan mount [style]....'' In those days, acceptable artistic pursuits for women were decorating small fans. ``I think them capable of it, if taken in time, and with proper pains bestow'd, that in case of Accident ... they may do something for Bread.''
But the subject of Gainsborough's brush who really returns the artist's gaze in the most revealing, affectionate, but perhaps amusedly tolerant way is his wife. Everyone who has written about this portrait (of about 1778) recognizes that it tells more about the relationship of the husband and wife than any words could do.
``The portrait is immensely sympathetic,'' John Hayes has written in his book on Gainsborough, ``and affords the surest possible evidence of Gainsborough's deep affection for his wife, with whom we know he found it difficult to get on; not long before this picture was painted he wrote his sister: ``If I tell you my wife is weak but good, and never much formed to humour my Happiness, what can you do to alter her?''
That probably momentary, self-pitying complaint is not in the least the story the portrait tells, and there is no reason to suppose he felt a need to flatter or deceive. He had a natural tendency, it's true, as Van Dyck (whom he so much admired) had in the previous century, to invest his sitters with grace. But the expression of mouth and eyes on Mrs. Gainsborough's face strongly suggests that the artist's brush did not lie.