As a landscape painter Gainsborough was influenced in his early years by Dutch seventeenth century pictures seen in East Anglia; and the landscape backgrounds in his Ipswich period portraits are all in that tradition. But during his Bath period he saw paintings by Rubens and thereafter that influence is apparent in his landscape compositions. The landscapes of Gainsborough's maturity have spontaneity deriving from the light rapid movement of his brush;- but they are not rapid sketches from nature, he never painted out-of-doors; he painted his landscapes in his studio from his drawings, and from the scenes which , he constructed in a kind of model theatre, where he took bits of cork and vegetables and so on and moved them about, and moved the light about, till he had arranged a composi-tion. It is possible that some of his preliminary black and white chalk landscape drawings were done out-of-doors; but the majority were done in the studio from memory when he returned from his walk or ride; and some of the finest of the drawings, the "Horses by a Shed", for example, resulted perhaps from a combination of the two procedures - a rough pencil note made on the spot and reconsidered in terms of composition with the aid of his candle and the model theatre after dinner. At his highest level he went far beyond the current formulae and achieved a degree of integrated three-dimensional arrangement.
Wilson's "River Scene with Bathers"
Probably the most lasting impression made on many people by Richard Wilson's "River Scene with Bathers" is of the golden light that suffuses the painting. It is a sort of light we associate with a warm summer evening. Actual sunlight doesn't often have such a mellow tone, but this colour accords perfectly with the image many of us hold of what evening light ideally should be. Almost everything about this painting has a similar elysian quality. None of us has seen a view exactly like this one, and yet it immediately strikes a sympathetic chord: the cattle lazing in the late sun while the herders take a swim; the softly rounded hills with masses of unruffled foliage; the quiet river meandering toward the distant mountain and the still more distant, unclouded horizon. There is even a ruined temple, picturesquely placed as a gentle reminder of the transitory character of man's achievement in the face of nature. Eve-rything about this painting contributes to this idyllic mood. It is a little too good to be true; but we wish it might be true.
Richard Wilson himself had never seen this view any more than we have, because it does not exist. It was for him, as it is for us, an ideal landscape, sensitively developed in his imagination from his recollections of things encountered, both in nature and in art. It was an attitude that was widely accepted in Wilson's day. The artistic climate that produced a painting such as "River Scene with Bathers" is akin to that which accounts for "Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse".
Underlying the interest in creating an "ideal" landscape was the assumption that art should aspire to something more than mere sensuous gratification; that it should elevate the thoughts of the spectator and purge his mind of petty considerations. This was to be achieved both by what was included and (equally important) the way in which it was represented. The scene, with its ruin, spacious vista, and warm summer light, is meant to remind us of Italy, or at least the Mediterranean area, and to arouse by association a train of thought concerned with pastoral idylls of the classical past. But this effect is strongly supported by the way in which Wilson has organized the elements in his painting to sustain a mood of quiet and repose. The picture is carefully balanced around the centrally placed ruin. The hill to the right finds just the proper counter-poise in the distant mountain and the broad stretch of valley to the left. The group of bathers on the left is balanced by the cattle on the right. The whole view is enframed by trees on either side and set comfortably back in space by a dark' foreground ledge. The sense of balance involves many factors, including shape, light, texture and distance. Nothing appears forced, but every element in the picture has been conceived and placed with regard to its relation to the
7) SCIENCE AND ANIMAL PAINTING
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) and George Stubbs (1724-1806)
A most interesting figure was Joseph Wright of Derby, an able enough painter with a remarkable range of interests. He was conventionally London-trained in portraiture, and made the, by then, conventionally necessary trip to Italy but it is to his native Midlands that he returned in the end. In his work there comes through something of the hard-headed, practical yet romantic excitement of the dawn'of the Industrial Revolution. He saw the world in a forced and sharpening light'- sometimes artificial, the mill-windows brilliant in the night, faces caught in the circle of the lamp, or the red glow of an iron forge, casting mon-strous shadows. This was an old trick - deriving from Caravaggio and the Dutch candlelight painters - but with it Wright brought out a sense of exploration and exploitation - scientific, intellectual and commercial, the spirit of the Midlands of his time. His patrons were men like the industrialist Arkwright of the spinning Jenny, and Dr Priestley, the poetic seer of the new science (both of whom he painted).
The "Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump", painted in 1768, is perhaps his masterpiece. Air-pumps were in considerable production in the Midlands at the time, but this is not merely an excellently painted and composed study of scientific experiment. It is raised to the pitch of a true and moving drama of life by the tender yet un-sentimental exploration of a human situation. The bird in the globe will die, as the vacuum is created in it; the elder girl on the right cannot bear the idea and hides her face in her hands, while the younger one though half-turned away also, looks up still to the bird with a marvellous and marvelling expression in which curiosity is just overcoming fear and pity. The moon, on the edge of cloud, seen through the window on the right, adds another dimension of weird-ness and mystery.
This is a picture that exists on many levels but, as it was not expressed in terms of the classical culture of the age, Wright's subject pictures were for long not given their due. He himself stood apart from that (classical) culture; although he early became an associate of the Royal Academy, he soon quarrelled with it.
George Stubbs presents in some ways a similar case: he never became a full member of the Royal Academy. He was, for his contemporaries, a mere horse-painter. In the last few years he has been much studied, and his reassess-ment has lifted him to the level of the greatest of his'time. His life has been fairly described as heroic. The son of a Liverpool currier, he supported himself at the begin-ning of his career" in northern England by painting por-traits, but at the same time started on his study of anatomy, animal and human, that was to prove not only vitally im-portant to his art but also a new contribution to science. Stubbs was one of the great English empiricists. He took a farm-house in Lincolnshire and in it, over eighteen months, he grappled with the anatomy of the horse. His models were the decaying carcasses of horses, which he gradually stripped down, recording each revelation of anatoT my in precise and scientific drawing. The result was his book The Anatomy of the Horse, a pioneering work both in science and art.
All his painting is based on knowledge drawn from ruthless study, ordered by a most precise observation. In the seventies, his scientific interests widened from anatomy to chemistry, and helped by Wedgwood, the enlightened founder of the great pottery firm, he experimented in enam) el painting. His true and great originality was not on-conventional lines, and could not be grasped by contemporary taste.