'Thomas Gainsborough: Drawings at The Clark'

'Drawings in imitation of oil paintings ...'

Exhibition highlights drawings by Thomas Gainsborough


WILLIAMSTOWN — Swirls of black and white chalk weave and blend with strokes of graphite, washes of ink and hints of watercolor and oil to create romantic landscapes filled with rolling hills, luscious trees and brooding clouds hovering in the distance.

The scenes are small, sketched on toned paper, and stretch across three decades of Thomas Gainsborough's career.

Especially skilled in portraiture, Gainsborough made a lucrative living from works commissioned by middle and upper class families and became a favorite of King George III. Although he was known for his fashionable portraits, he was also a prolific painter of rural landscapes, often experimenting with various media and techniques as he sketched the English countryside.

The artist even went as far as to develop a "secret method" to make a drawing look like a painting.

"Thomas Gainsborough: Drawings at The Clark," on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute through March 17, explores the artist's use of layering and innovation with 16 of his drawings — 14 culled from the Manton Collection and two acquired by the Clarks. The exhibition is held in conjunction with "Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape."

"He's seen as [Turner and Constable's] precursor; as taking on the English landscape," said Kristie Couser, curatorial assistant for works on paper at The Clark. "He was the British artist who looked at the native landscape there and made it an essential part of his work. Across the European art academies landscape painting was considered a lesser art form. He was trying to establish landscape painting as a more important subject ... Throughout his portraits, you notice, the importance of the landscapes, in the background. He seems to consider the landscapes to be just as important in terms of a finished portrait."

She added, "It's really fortuitous that when we are focusing on Turner and Constable, that we can have this exhibition in conversation with it. He was the pioneer of the British landscape and they are the next generation that became known for it."

The show includes work from his initial output in the mid-1750s to the last years of his life in the 1780s.

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"We see him at the start, very focused on the study of a single plant in 'Study of Mallows,' and see him go in different directions over the next 30 years, using several types of media in his work," Couser said.

Gainsborough sketched both from life and from composites put together in his studio, which resulted in romanticized landscapes.

"He did look back to French and Dutch examples but he's much more imaginative. He was not always working out of doors but was traveling around England," she said. "If you look closely, the scale is off in relationship to the size of a shepherd and his flock. It can feel off, but trained artists at that time seemed to work outside of the system, working more to create visual effect rather than adhere to strict tradition."

Gainsborough bucked tradition in other ways, as well. While using mixed media in a drawing was not uncommon at the time, she said, Gainsborough's complex approach of applying the media in layers was "more uncommon."

"He varnished his drawings. We have four of those in the exhibition. Those works, he considered to be 'drawings in imitation of oil paintings.'," she said. "He was trying to make a drawing look like a painting through using an extreme variety of media and thoughtful layering."

To do that, he created his "secret method" of fixing chalk and other powdery media to paper to prevent smudging.

"He would use different fixatives, gum arabic, which is a more traditional fixative, and skim milk, his so-called secret medium," Couser said. "He would dip his work in skim milk. It's not something that is visible in the final work. It's extremely thin and colorless once it dries. It's pretty much clear or transparent."

Once the layer was dry, Gainsborough would return to the work, adding layers of ink, oil and watercolor. He would sometimes add varnish as the final layer to preserve it and to give it the glossy look of a painting.

"It's not until two decades into his career that he begins varnishing his drawings," she said, noting the exhibition shows the artist both adapt and abandon certain techniques. "You have this sense that he was always pushing to be more imaginative, more innovate — free with interpreting it."


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