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LONDON — Tate Britain is celebrating the many faces of legendary artist Thomas Gainsborough, who could make the folds of a noblewoman’s silk dress sparkle and spring to life as easily as he could depict the ragged clothing of a poor child from the country.
The exhibition, simply called “Gainsborough,” is the largest group of the artist’s work ever gathered and includes paintings and drawings from public and private collections in the U.K., Europe and the U.S. It runs at Tate Britain until Jan. 19, and moves to Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in February. It will then transfer to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in June.
The show covers six rooms in the museum, stretching from Gainsborough’s teenage years in London, studying at the St. Martin’s Lane Academy and struggling to make a living as a painter in Sudbury and Ipswich, up to his death in 1788 at age 61, upon which he was lauded as one of England’s greatest painters. The exhibition casts Gainsborough as a true child of the Enlightenment who was in love with nature and sensual pleasures, attitudes that differed substantially from those of his more theoretical and intellectual contemporaries. Gainsborough painted the landowner and member of parliament William Wollaston in a moment of leisure, holding his flute, and Ann Ford, an English guitar virtuoso, wearing a silver dress and surrounded by stacks of sheet music.
But while Gainsborough is perhaps most famous for his portraits, his oeuvre extended far beyond them. The exhibition includes many of the artist’s landscapes, which were known for their spontaneity and naturalism, but which were largely overlooked during his lifetime. If his portraits celebrated the wealth and beauty of 18th-century England, his landscapes depicted more of a social conscience, tackling such contemporary issues as displaced rural workers and the disappearance of traditional country life. In “Cottage Girl with a Dog and Pitcher,” for example, Gainsborough shows a country girl in rags. Her clothes are in stark contrast to the voluminous and luxurious gowns shown in the portraits of his rich patrons and represents Gainsborough’s not-so-subtle message to his wealthier public: Help the poor.