In-Depth Discussion: Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) was a painter who loved landscapes, but who made his money through portraiture.

Mary, Countess Howe (ca. 1764) is commonly heralded as one of the great masterpieces of British painting. Gainsborough was paid to paint her portrait, along with that of her husband, Richard Howe, when he lived in Bath in the 1760s. Mary is dressed in the current fashion, shown especially by her accessories, such as her expensive Italian hat.

The countess was in Bath to help heal her husband’s gout. Bath was considered a “spa town” at the time and was a popular destination for those who were sick. Gainsborough was much more interested in Mary’s portrait than he was in her husband’s: X-rays show that he tweaked and adjusted many parts of the painting, whereas her husband’s portrait shows no signs of such meticulousness. These two paintings would have been hung next to each other—the upright, strong woman stepping forward, contrasted with her husband, who is merely leaning against a rock.

In fact, some art historians think that Gainsborough might have been making a statement about Mary as a powerful woman. She stands outside in a private, expansive, and fenced-in park; deer in the background allude to the English pastime of hunting. Mary was a known landowner, rare for women at the time—perhaps Gainsborough is celebrating her independence.

Gainsborough took inspiration from Anthony van Dyck for his portraits, particularly the full-length style (from head to toe) and fashionable dress. Take a look at Van Dyck’s Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Attended by a Page (1634), also in this exhibition, which depicts an exiled princess who was suspected of treason and perhaps even murder.

Discussion Questions

  • What do we know about this woman from the portrait? What can we assume from what she is wearing, from her pose, and from her expression? What about the background or the objects around her—do they tell us anything about her?
  • Explain to your students a bit about Mary’s background, particularly what art historians think about Gainsborough’s intent when depicting her. Do they agree or disagree? Why?

[lightbox href=”” title=”Thomas Gainsborough Going to Market, c. 1768-71 Oil on canvas 47 x 57 ½ in. Kenwood House, English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest (88028782). Photo courtesy American Federation of Arts.” src=””]

Though Gainsborough was well known in his time for his portraits, his true love was landscape painting. In Going to Market, he seems to have turned landscape into social commentary.

At the time, thanks to the Enclosure Movement, farmers in England were being forced to get jobs from landowners rather than working independently. Because their income changed so rapidly, many farmers were out of a job and a home.

Art historians think that Gainsborough, who himself grew up on a farm, might have been referencing this phenomenon in this painting of the English countryside. The work contrasts a prosperous family—their cottage sunlit, fields green and bright—with a homeless one, huddled in darkness and mud on the lower-right part of the canvas.

Discussion Questions

  • Explain the historic context of this painting to your students. Do they agree with art historians’ suspicions? What evidence is in the work of art that supports and does not support the claim?
  • What landscapes might students depict in Milwaukee? What might they include—what landmarks, people, or objects would be important? What stories would these landscapes tell the future?