* artists illustrating boys fashions Gainsborough

Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: Sir Thomas Gainsborough, (England, 1727-88)

Figure 1.--The Blue Boy painting by Gainsborourgh in 1779 is one of the most instantly recognizable portraits in the history of art. While painted in the 18th Century, it portrays a Cavalier boy in 17th Century dress.

Sir Thomas Gainsborough is one of the great English masters. He is perhaps the most renounded English portratists. He is known for his warm, natural depictions. His work is often less formal than some contemporaries, but evoke the elegance of Van Dyck perhaps the artist he most admired. His landscapes are not as well known, although some are notable for their evocative, pastoral beauty.


Thomas was born into a family of modest means in Sudbury, Suffolk during 1727. One report indicates that his farther was a teacher another a clothier, perhaps both were true. Thomas was the youngest of the nine children. His father was John Gainsborough and the sister of the Reverend Humphry Burroughs. Thomas was baptized in Sudbury on 14 May 1727. He enjoyed sketching from an early age. His talent was recognized as a boy from his sketches. He was first encouraged by his mother who had an interest in culture and was an accomplished flower painter. As a child he copied famous paintings. He used to spend a lot of time outdoors, drawing.


Thomas attended Sudbury Grammar School, of which his maternal uncle was the school master.

Apprectiship and Training

Gainsborough prevailed upon his father to send him to London to study art. At the age of 13-14 he finally reached London. He spent several years working in the studios of different artists. he studied drawing and engraving under the French engraver Hubert Gravelot. Later he studied painting with Francis Hayman, a painter of historical events. Through Gravelot, who had been a pupil of the great French painter Antoine Watteau, Gainsborough came under Watteau's influence. Later he was also influenced by the painters of the Dutch school and by the Flemish painter Sir Anthony van Dyck. Gainsborough was intimately involved with avant-garde rococo art and design, and seems to have assisted Francis Hayman on his genre paintings for the decoration of Vauxhall Gardens.

Family Life

Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort in 1745. They had two daughters. Because of his growing family he found it difficult to make ends meet in Ipswhich and thus moved to Bath, launching his brilliant portrait career.


Gainsborough established himself as a painter at Ipswich where he worked from 1745 to 1760. He developed the subject-matter of small portrait groups, set in a realistic landscape. His work at this time consisted mainly of heads and half-length, but he also painted some small portrait groups in landscape settings which are the most lyrical of all English conversation pieces. His patrons were the merchants of the town and the neighboring squires. He eventually realized he had exhausted the possibilities of local patronage and moved to the fashionable spa town of Bath seeking clients. He moved to Bath in 1760 where he lived and worked from 1760 to 1774. Bath was a fashionable health resort, the perfect spot to set of a studio to paint the portraits of wealthy clients. He achieved instant success at Bath. In Bath his new sitters were members of Society, and he developed a free and elegant mode of painting seen at its most characteristic in full-length portraits (Mary, Countess Howe, Kenwood House, London, c.1763-64). He also painted numerous landscapes, which he admitted were his passion. Gainsborough customarily painted his portraits entirely himself. His only known assistant was his nephew Gainsborough Dupont, who was apprenticed to him in 1772. Gainsborough was elected one of the original members of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. He painted, by royal commission, portraits of King George III and the queen consort, Charlotte Sophia in 1774. Gainsborough settled in London the same year. He was the favorite painter of the British aristocracy, becoming wealthy through commissions for portraits. Gainsborough in 1774 moved to London where he became a foundation member of the Royal Academy. However, had several disagreements with the Academy about the selection of his paintings and refused to exhibit there after 1784. By the 1780s Gainsborough and his rivals, Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay, were considered to be the best portrait painters in England. All three painted George III but it was claimed that the royal family preferred Gainsborough's portraits. Gainsborough died in London on August 2, 1788.

Figure 2.--This painting by Thomas Gainsburough was of his nephew, Edward Richard Gardiner. It was painted in the 1760s, but depicts 17th Century Cavalier dress. Reportedly he used his nephew to prepare for the famous "Blue Boy" painting. Edward wears the same costume as worn by the boy in "Blue Boy".

Body of Work

Gainsborough was an enormously prolific artist. He executed more than 500 paintings, of which more than 200 were portraits. His portraits are characterized by the stately and refined grace of the figures, by poetic charm, and by cool and fresh colors--especially green and blue hues, thinly applied. Among Gainsborough most renowned portraits are Orpin, The Parish Clerk (Tate Gallery, London); The Baillie Family (1784) and Mrs. Siddons (1785), both in the National Gallery, London; Perdita Robinson (1781, Wallace Collection, London); The Hon. Francis Duncombe (1777), Frick Collection, New York City); Mrs. Tenant (1786-1787, Metropolitan Museum, New York City); and many in private collections, including The Blue Boy (1779), Huntington Collection, San Marino, California). His portrait Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750), National Gallery, London) is unusually balanced between portrait and landscape painting.The effect of poetic melancholy induced by faint lighting characterizes Gainsborough's paintings. He was obviously influenced by Dutch 17th century landscape painting. His landscape painting focuses on forest scenes, or rough and broken country. Some of his best regarded landscapes are Cornard Wood (1748) and The Watering Place (1777?), both in the National Gallery, London. Gainsborough also executed many memorable drawings and etchings. Gainsborough was in many ways the antithesis of Reynolds. Whereas Reynolds was sober-minded and the complete professional, Gainsborough (even though his output was prodigious) was much more easy-going and often overdue with his commissions, writing that `painting and punctuality mix like oil and vinegar'. Although he was an entertaining letter-writer, Gainsborough, unlike Reynolds, had no interest in literary or historical themes, his great passion outside painting being music (his friend William Jackson the composer wrote that he `avoided the company of literary men, who were his aversion... he detested reading'). Gainsborough and Reynolds had great mutual respect, however; Gainsborough asked for Reynolds to visit him on his deathbed, and Reynolds paid posthumous tribute to his rival in his Fourteenth Discourse. Recognizing the fluid brilliance of his brushwork, Reynolds praised `his manner of forming all the parts of a picture together', and wrote of `all those odd scratches and marks' that `by a kind of magic, at a certain distance... seem to drop into their proper places'. One of his last portaits was the Marsham children (1787).

Colored Boys

Some of his children's portraits are highly regarded. Two his most famous portraits are The Blue Boy (1779) and Pink Boy (17??). The boys, one a relative of Gainsbourough, were painted in elaborate satin and lace costumes of the previous century. His early works show the influence of French engraving and of Dutch landscape painting; at Bath his change of portrait style owed much to a close study of van Dyck (his admiration is most clear in The Blue Boy. Not to be out done by Gainsborough, Sir Thomas Rynolds also did a colored boy--"Brown Boy" hich although largely unknown may actually be a superior work of art.

Boys' Fashions

While Gainsbourgh's most famous portraits of boys were boys costumed in 17th century cavaler fashions, he also painted boys in contemporary styles. We see unbreeched boys in dresses. A good example is Master John Heathcote wearing a long white dress with a blue sash. Gainborough painted the boy about 1771. Most of the portraits show boys dressed much like their fathers, only in smaller sized. At the end of his career, however, boys began to appear in a new destinctive child's fashion-the skeketon suit. The 1784 portrait of the Baillie family, for example, shows a boy in an early version of the skeleton suit. He wears a comfortable looking, bu fancy open lace collar. The pants have big buttons attaching to the jacket. Note the foreshortened trousers and buttons. The pants, while not yet long pants, are longer than knee breeches and fall unclosed. Like many boys in late 18th century portraits, he wears a sash around his waist. Another difference between the late 18th and early 19th century outfits is that the boy wears buckle shoes rather than strap shoes.


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Created: February 29, 1999
Spell checked: July 30, 1999
Last updated: 5:50 AM 7/28/2010