The Thinking 

Gainsborough’s Children

August 27, 2012


The Painter's Daughters

THE great 18th century British portraitist Thomas Gainsborough had a way of capturing both the innocence and gravity of childhood. His portraits of children call to mind Constable’s words about Gainsborough, “”On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them.”  In the above portrait of his daughters, one reaching for a butterfly though a butterfly cannot be grasped without crushing it, the girls’ faces convey goodness, inner simplicity and fragile hope, precisely the qualities that make us cherish children and remind us of an openness to life and heightened consciousness that we ourselves lack.

As Sister Wendy Beckett points out in her Story of Painting, Gainsborough’s daughters both were psychologically fragile and eventually led difficult lives, making this picture all the more poignant. Another portrait of them (below) suggests their complexity and difficulties.

Artist's Daughters with a Cat, 1759-61

The Marsham Children conveys a group of pensive and dreamy siblings, and shows once again the artist’s remarkable appreciation for the inner life of children. The young girl seated on the ground looks directly at the viewer, penetrating and curious, with the lack of discretion or shame  children display when they stare at others and try to understand who they are. Jeffrey Dale Starr writes at his blog:

Another example of why Gainsborough was so much more than a mere portrait painter. In an era before cameras, most painters were viewed simply as tools to document moments. In paintings like “The Marsham Children”, Gainsborough instead creates a magical moment…the siblings seem more like a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” than a stale, static portrait

The Marsham Children, 1787

Other Gainsboroughs can be seen at Art Renewal and the Web Gallery of Art.

Cottage Children, 1787


Miss Linley and her brother, 1768

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