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  • Splendid Impositions: Gainsborough, Berkeley, Hume
  • Amal Asfour and Paul Williamson (bio)

The account of Gainsborough which Sir Joshua Reynolds offers in Discourse XIV leaves an important question unanswered. Reynolds characterizes Gainsborough as an artist whose primary interest is in the observation of nature. Gainsborough neglected the study of the “various masters” and even what he learned from the Flemish School did not distract him from direct observation: “he saw with his own eyes; and imitated, not in the manner of those masters, but in his own.” 1 Yet, if Gainsborough paints on the basis of attentive observation, why do his images exhibit such an “uncouth and shapeless appearance”? In defending Gainsborough’s style against the charge that it is “his greatest defect,” Reynolds argues that it is precisely his “unfinished manner” that is the cause of the “striking resemblance for which his portraits are so remarkable.” This is because it allows the viewer’s imagination to play a role in the realization of the image: “there is the general effect; enough to remind the spectator of the original; the imagination supplies the rest.” 2 Reynolds does not clarify the connection between the painter as careful observer of nature and “those odd scratches and marks” which constitute Gainsborough’s style and, consequently, the relationship between painter as observer and the viewer’s contributory imaginative act.

Reynolds’s discussion recalls Jonathan Richardson’s earlier recommendation that the artist should be an expert in the “Art of Seeing.” In An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), Richardson defines seeing as an art that is learned: we are “Taught to see as well as to Dance, and the Beauties of Nature open themselves to our Sight by little and little, after a long Practice in the Art of Seeing. A Judicious and well-instructed Eye sees a wonderful Beauty in the Shapes and Colours of the Commonest [End Page 403] Things.” 3 This theme is later taken up by Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty (1753). Speaking of the “discernment of the eye,” Hogarth emphasizes that “this discernment is still capable of further improvements by instructions from a methodical enquiry; which the ingenious Mr. Richardson, in his treatise on painting, terms the art of seeing.” 4 The terminology which Reynolds adopts in Discourse XIV makes explicit an empiricist dimension which is already contained in Richardson’s opinion that seeing is learned. In a way which recalls Hume, for example, Reynolds speaks in terms of ideas and impressions. 5 Gainsborough’s portraits and landscapes convey “a powerful impression of nature,” while his “genius” possesses the “natural eloquence” of those who communicate in a language which they “can scarce be said to understand; and who without knowing the appropriate expression of almost any one idea, contrive to communicate the lively and forcible impressions of an energetick mind.” Accordingly, Gainsborough’s style is described by Reynolds as “the language in which he expressed his ideas.” 6

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Figure 1.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs. Philip Thicknesse, 1760. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati.

Contemporary viewers confirm that the portraits Gainsborough began to paint around the time of his move to Bath in 1759 bear a striking, almost startling resemblance to life. 7 Ozias Humphrey, for example, praises their “surprising resemblance and perfection”; referring to the portrait of Dr. Charlton (Holburne Menstrie Museum, Bath), exhibited in 1766, he remarks that, “It was a walking figure in a familiar dress, and absolutely seemed, when first entering the room, like a living person.” 8 Even earlier, William Whitehead described Gainsborough as a painter “who takes the most exact likenesses I ever saw.” 9 For Mrs. Delany, as, later, for William Jackson, Gainsborough’s pictures were “splendid impositions,” a phrase which, she notes, had been “unjustly” applied to Rubens, and the portrait of Mrs. Philip Thicknesse (fig. 1) was more than she could feel comfortable with: “a most extraordinary figure, handsome and bold; but I should be very sorry to have any one I loved set forth in such a manner.” 10 More recently, William Whitley finds the Thicknesse portrait “particularly interesting as one of the first fruits of the painter’s Bath period, in which...

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