Long-term loans of artwork from private collectors and other museums are an effective and efficient way for a museum to give visitors a new perspective on its permanent collection, and for lenders to get their artwork out to new audiences. In the Charles O. McGaughey Gallery on the second floor of the IMA, visitors will currently find a painting by Thomas Gainsborough, titled Wooded Rocky Landscape with Mounted Peasant, Drover, Cattle, and Distant Building, on loan from the Tacoma Art Museum.
Painted around 1786, it’s a luminous, bucolic little scene- that holds its own next to J.M.W. Turner’s powerful and dramatic The Fifth Plague of Egypt from our permanent collection (recently returned from New Orleans Museum of Art). Having the Gainsborough from Tacoma to compare with paintings by Turner, Benjamin West, and Richard Wilson creates a new experience of the IMA’s holdings in late eighteenth-century English landscape painting. The painting will be here until June 2011.
The painting may look like it was painted directly from nature, but Gainsborough created his landscapes in the studio, working on them in the evenings after his portrait sitters had gone. He certainly used sketches made outdoors to help compose his paintings, but he also built little landscape tableaux in the studio to lay out his compositions. Discussing Gainsborough’s working practice, his rival Joshua Reynolds reported that “from the fields he brought into his painting-room stumps of trees, weeds, and animals of various kinds; and designed them, not from memory, but immediately from the objects. He even framed a kind of model from landscapes on his table; composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees and water.” This process-oriented approach to landscape painting was typical of Gainsborough. Another landscape by Gainsborough in the IMA’s permanent collection is an example of what the artist called a “varnished watercolor,” created in mixed media that includes white lead, ink, gouache, milk, and glue on several pieces of paper joined together and mounted on canvas. The painting, on view in the balcony of the Clowes Pavilion, has the appearance of a drawing, thanks to the rapid execution and the flickering highlights.
Gainsborough may have made his name as a society portrait painter, but he found real joy in landscape painting. Because of his fame as a portraitist, it’s somewhat surprising to realize that Gainsborough could apparently be rather half-hearted about the business of portrait painting. He himself admitted that he sometime found it tedious to crank out the portraits his clients demanded and wished that “the People with their damn’d Faces could but let me alone a little.” In a letter he declared, “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol de Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village when I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease.”
Gainsborough was a rather temperamental character who had very strong opinions about how his work should be displayed. In fact, he eventually broke his ties with the Royal Academy after a dispute over how his paintings should be installed in their galleries—he preferred that they be hung higher on the wall so that the his broadly painted style could be fully appreciated. In a huff, he pulled his paintings from the Academy’s annual exhibition and began displaying his work in his studio, where he could hang his paintings as he pleased. The painting on loan from Tacoma is one of seven landscapes that Gainsborough exhibited in his London home, Schomberg House, in April of 1786.
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