"Learned" isn't a word typically applied to 19th-century English painter Thomas Gainsborough. He is more often described as "intuitive."
But Michael Rosenthal, curator of the major exhibition of Gainsborough's work that opens this Sunday at the National Gallery in Washington, wants to disabuse misconceptions that have surrounded this artist's reputation.
Gainsborough's work is brilliantly painted and wonderfully poetic, but it is not regarded as the work of a thinking, knowing artist. In this respect, he has often been compared unfavorably to his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great theorizer and academician.
But his intelligence was practical rather than theoretical. It was intimately associated with, and expressed through, the development of his own art.
"I knew Gainsborough was a very learned and witty artist," says Mr. Rosenthal, "but until the show was up, I hadn't realized quite how witty and learned."
He was by no means just a fashionable portraitist - though his portraits amply display his extraordinary capacity for investing his subjects with elegance and grace. But they also demonstrate how remarkably adept - how intelligent - he was at reading body language, at conveying character by means of subtly and accurately depicted stance, gesture, and look.
His portraits, painted with breathtaking virtuosity, often have dazzling surfaces. The best of them engage well below the surface with attitude and inner life. You sense that Gainsborough sized up his clients, watched and talked with them, reacted to them, and studied them. His portraits of his own family and friends are deeper, but even on the treadmill of professional "face painting," he was a quick and telling judge of his subjects.
Take the pendant portraits of Viscount and Viscountess Ligonier. These two portraits do not just flatter or idealize. "He's aware of what's going on," Rosenthal emphasizes. "Here are two people whose marriage is about to collapse. And Gainsborough shows it. Careful inspection of the paintings tells you. He's clever isn't he?"
Landscapes and pictures of rural life (often painted for himself) are as central to his vision, and just as sophisticatedly perceptive, as his commissioned portraits. These paintings, often showing poverty and migration, express a conservative and highly critical reaction, says Rosenthal, to the new agricultural practices of the time.
These images may seem pastoral and idyllic. But they are much closer to a rather brutal realism than our sense of nostalgia suggests.
Rosenthal goes so far as to call the rural poor paintings "cutting edge," and points out their similarity to Oliver Goldsmith's contemporary poem "The Deserted Village." Goldsmith "characterizes the landscape of improvement as a place of silence" he says. And he finds a similar silence pervading Gainsborough's landscapes.
More to be expected, perhaps, are the parts of the show devoted to "Portraiture and Fashion," and to "Gainsborough in the Public Eye: The Exhibition Works." But his canny intelligence can be seen at work here, too. He was carrying on, by means of the paintings themselves, an open debate with Reynolds's ideas.
His work was, for the most part, deliberately modern rather than the academic "history painting" which, to Reynolds, was the highest form of art. Gainsborough's portrait sitters, significantly, were almost never shown wearing generalized classical robes. They wore contemporary dress. They belonged visibly to the fashionable elite of the day, particularly in Bath and London.
"Portraiture and Fashion" showcases such deservedly famous works as the "The Morning Walk" and the portrait of "Mary, Countess Howe." Here also is a stunning copy of a Van Dyck, indicating Gainsborough's admiration for the 17th-century master. "By this kind of study" Rosenthal speculates, the artist was "a bit like someone dismantling a watch to see how it works" and was "refining" his technique so that in the end, "he can create effects unlike anybody else, actually."
This exhibition is of an artist who stands incomparably on his own. He, no less than Reynolds, defined and pushed forward the art of his time.
Mr. Rosenthal believes that Gainsborough himself was to some extent responsible for his reputation as less an intellectual than Reynolds. But "while he pretends to be a kind of instinctive, unthinking 'holy fool' - he's not."
Gainsborough's letters reveal an adroit thinker, an astutely critical mind - humorous, independent, and confident in his contentions and intentions.
"He was a compulsive imagemaker," says Rosenthal. "The fact that we hear of him during the evening in Bath sitting down and continuously making watercolor landscapes, and not resting, is, I think, pretty interesting."
• 'Gainsborough' travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, June 9 to Sept. 14.