Art · Reality

Gainsborough: Conversations In Paint.

Gainsborough’s Portrait of Philip Dupont, circa 1770.

Philip Dumont, painted by Thomas Gainsborough around 1770.
Philip Dumont, painted by Thomas Gainsborough around 1770.

Gainsborough painted his brother in law, Philip Dupont when he was already famous. I can’t say that he was at the height of his powers as an artist, because artists like Gainsborough aren’t the kind who develop. They just are. Their work, like their life, has a consistentcy and liveliness that others lack.

But of course they develop! That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? As a young man, Gainsborough had travelled to the low countries with the aim of studying the Dutch masters. For an artist as gifted as Gainsborough, the subtleties expressed by the masters will have been immediate. From the landscapes, to the remaining ‘dead paintings’ of Rembrandt – a term used for the underlying sketch painted in a monochrome with the grey muck from the box where the artist cleaned his brushes – to Frans Hals. I have already written about how sloppy some of Hals’ work is, and how it means nothing when you understand what Frans Hals wanted to convey.

Art is, if nothing else, a conversation, and a man like Gainsborough will have understood this. Indeed, he was born to converse, as it were; only his passion was to converse using paint.

Gainsborough’s problem was that he wanted to paint landscapes and everybody around him wanted portraits. To me, that would have been fair enough, we all have to earn a living in one way or another, and doing what pleases and entertains us comes second to this. Nevertheless, to a man as passionate as Gainsborough, portraits were something of a curse. One part of the life we lead is realizing when we’ve been put in a position in society that we have to fulfil, and I have knocked at the walls of this ‘incarceration’ just as Gainsborough did. Talent and life do not always dovetail as neatly as one might wish.

Nevertheless, Gainsborough knew how to convey his thoughts when painting, convey what he saw before him and set it before the mind of the observer. The 18th century was a time before the logical intellect had seized the mind and torn it away from its reflective capacities.

Gainsborough depicted Philip Dumont's face to perfection.
The face, perfectly depicted.

So take a look at Philip Dupont’s face: it is clearly painted and whilst the face has little by way of expression, the paint strokes honestly reflect this. I almost wrote ‘lovingly’ because that is what honest expression is. Now look to the further parts of the painting and you will find that the coat is painted with a crudeness that would be a match for Frans Hals! As you move closer to the face, the painting becomes more detailed, the collar and stud for example, whilst lacking the thoroughness given to the face, is depicted with a deal of care and attention.

As I wrote, it’s hard to know if Gainsborough got the idea from Frans Hals or not; it is certain that Gainsborough will have seen his paintings and the effect on a soul as able as Gainsborough’s will have been immediate. In my post about the portrait of Maritje Voogt (see below)  it was my intention to express the thought that this was no modern economy, the saving of time and effort in a world that values money over the time taken to earn it. Any thoughts Frans Hals had about saving money by painting poorly came a long way behind his knowledge of how to bring a dead painting to life.

Conversation: Focussing On The Face.

Anybody who has any capacity for that most human of activities, the conversation, will know that it is the face that attracts the attention. Indeed when I am on the lookout for interesting people to meet, it is always their face and their expression that hand me the first clues. Those people who have lively minds will be expressive and lively in their gestures; those who are buried in their iPhones or newspapers, who have little time for others will not be.

Seen from this perspective, it is the face that the human eye turns to if it seeks to converse. It is the closest thing to an instinct in the human as I know of; yet it is no instinct because most people today avoid making eye contact. What is certain is that all the best artists – the masters – knew this simple secret. It is another expression of Paul Klee’s

“The more horrifying the world, the more abstract becomes the art. A happy world, on the other hand, brings forth an art of the here and now.”

This ‘here and now’ is the directness of eye contact that the great masters all employ in one way or another. Those who lack it – like Vincent van Gogh – will find no pleasure in their art. For art itself is a healing balm; when it is not, it is not the fault of art, it is the fault of the person finding it difficult to express themselves.

Everything about Gainsborough’s painting tells us that he loved doing it – with the allowable exception of when he was pestered to do portraits in someone’s house, rather than walk into the countryside and enjoy the summer sun. Art is healing for the artist, to the observer it is inspiration.

This is where the conversation begins: for the painting is dead. Only when the paints are fresh and moving is there the remotest life in the image. When these are dry, the painting has died. Gainsborough knew that it wasn’t the painting that was alive, it was the imagination of the observer who could bring it to life. It is for this reason that the face is depicted with such clarity and love, and the rest of the painting is left as mere representation. My next post in this series will be about how JMW Turner took this to an extreme, how he failed. But that is for later; nor does it make Turner anything less than the greatest painter who ever lived.

The crude brush strokes depicting Dupont’s coat.

Gainsborough knew that the human eye will focus on the face, and this is key to Gainsborough’s conversation with us. The point is that when it comes to the depiction of the jacket, it is Gainsborough’s very restraint that actually brings the whole painting to life. Because we all know what jackets look like, we all know what common things look like because we’ve met them before – and can remember them. The human mind will strive to bring images into focus, to make them clear and legible, and if the painting is not clear, it is the mind that employs memories to stand in the stead of that which is lacking.

The key here is that our memories – be they conscious or forgotten – happened. They actually occurred at some point in your life, and whether your life of soul retains the clarity of a sparkling dew-drop in the morning sunshine, your memories from your innocent childhood will contain that spark of liveliness. Only the dried sticks of intellectual academics will have lost any contact with this liveliness which means all they can do is complain that paintings such as Gainsborough’s were “unfinished” because they lack the required detail. In another of my annoying detours, I wish to state that someone who needs all the details in a painting is someone who lacks an inner life; at least anything of real value. They will always demand that the painting be perfect, which means the observer no longer has to engage.


“The more horrifying the world, the more abstract becomes the art.” These are the people who disengage from the things they see around them. They have no imagination, have no conception of what it is to think and feel inside themselves. It is they who can take the majesty of an oppressive thundercloud and transpose it into the abstractness of a recursive mathematical formula that can be rendered into the dots and commas of a computer program. What’s more, they can do nothing else but turn life into the death of inexpressiveness.

Bringing A Painting To Life.

Gainsborough was, if nothing else, a man who knew what life was, and in painting the way he did, brought his paintings to life in the mind of his observers. Actually, it’s the other way around: the observer allows the painting to come to life. But the point here is that Gainsborough knew how to paint in order that this might come about. That is why he painted the jacket so crudely, the background with such apparent carelessness. It was so that the observer themselves would make up the discrepancy.

Because we all know what jackets look like, we all know what a window looks like, buttons and cravats. All of these things are in our memories from the earliest times, and when we look at a painting properly, these are employed when needed. Remember that these memories couldn’t have happened had you not lived them, and in allowing yourself to engage with the painting – that is to say, looking at a painting properly – it is your own access to your stock of memories that your imagination employs, and so brings the painting to life in your mind.

It is most important to realize that this cannot happen to a person who has had this ability taken away from them through intellectual training of any sort. Indeed, since most teachers know nothing save the intellect, they can do nothing but hand it on. There are exceptions to this rule, as any, for we are humans and it is those who have the strength to overcome these forces who will become the teachers who truly inspire their pupils. Well, they will inspire those pupils whose minds have not been irrevocably closed off to the world that exists around them. This closing off beginning with the process of withdrawal from reality that takes a natural sound and associates it with the ultimate abstraction: an unnatural, jagged shape. Yet parents want their children to read.

The ones who have the strength to come through this process relatively unscathed will, like Gainsborough, focus all their attention on the most important part of the world around them: the faces of the people they meet. Rather than occupy themselves with the jagged shapes rendered on a pixellated screen through the processing of dots and commas. Ones and zeroes by any other name.

This wonderful exhibition of Gainsborough’s works can be seen at the Rijksmuseum Twente in Enschede until 24th July 2016.




Frans Hals: Portrait Of Maritje Voogt, 1639.

She was the wife of Pieter Olycan the brewer. He would became mayor of Haarlem in Holland and have the money to engage Frans Hals to make paintings of them. So much for the blatant facts! You know me, I don’t just regurgitate Wikipedia on this site. Because there’s something going on here that’s really important.

Most people will just look at her painting in the Rijksmuseum and move along to the next. They’ve seen it, beheld it and they can tell their friends that they’ve seen it. Yet take a closer look at the lady’s ring. Look at it and you’ll see the detail literally sparkle. Yet just behind it are some of the crudest strokes an artist ever put to canvas.

Read more by clicking Here.


Vincent Van Gogh: Enclosing Reality On Canvas

(is not published on my public blog).





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