Wooded Landscape with a Woodcutter, c. 1762–1763
Thomas Gainsborough, British, 1727–1788
Oil on canvas
Canvas or panel: 39 1/2 × 49 7/8 in. (100.3 × 126.7 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Wymond Clark in memory of Harry C. Wiess
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Wooded Landscape with Woodcutter
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
One of the great geniuses of British painting, Thomas Gainsborough lived most of his life far from bustling London, preferring the solitude of the English countryside. Sent to London at age 13 to become an artist, Gainsborough returned to his native Suffolk and eventually moved to the spa town of Bath where he was an instant success. In Bath, Gainsborough developed his own distinctive style that translated well to the portraits painted for the merchants of the town. In 1774, Gainsborough moved back to London where he became the favorite painter of the royal family.
Gainsborough said that while portraiture was his profession, landscape painting was his pleasure. Wooded Landscape with Woodcutter is an excellent example of the type of landscapes Gainsborough was producing during his first few years in Bath. Dressed in typical peasant clothing, a woodcutter returns home from a day of work, his hatchet under his arm. Gainsborough frequently included peasants in his landscapes, admiring their life that was “unclouded by the world of towns or fashions.” Masses of trees frame the scene where, in the distance, a pair of donkeys and a church spire are lit by the setting sun. The donkeys recur in a number of Gainsborough landscapes and, in the words of the artist, “fill a place or create a little business for the eye to be drawn from the trees in order to return to them with more glee.” Often, Gainsborough designed his landscapes by using small bits of moss, weeds, and pebbles that could be arranged in the studio to create a maquette (model) that was pleasing to him.
Deep russet tones and dramatic chiaroscuro (light and dark) in Gainsborough’s paintings are the result of his habit of painting by candlelight. His interest in the fleeting effects of shadow and texture led Gainsborough to produce works that had an almost unfinished quality on the canvas. Wooded L andscape with Woodcutter is a prime example of the free and rapid brushwork Gainsborough employed in many of his landscapes.
Gainsborough was most influenced by the work of French 17th-century Claude Lorrain (see the Art Card for Landscape with a Rock Arch and River, c. 1628–30) and Dutch 17th-century landscape paintings. Gainsborough admired both their compositions and their motifs, which he incorporated into his own work.
Sir Joshua Reynolds (see Art Card for Mrs. Elisha Mathew, 1777), Gainsborough’s great rival and leader of the Royal Academy of Art, gave much praise and critical acclaim to Gainsborough’s style and approach to painting. Despite this critical acclaim, however, Gainsborough’s landscapes were not extremely popular among collectors, perhaps because his paintings were too original. As a result, Gainsborough gave some of his landscape paintings and nearly all of his drawings to friends and family. Wooded Landscape with Woodcutter was given to his physician, Rice Charlton, who eventually sold it at a Christie’s auction in 1790.
- Look closely at the figure in the foreground. What is he wearing? What is he doing? What can we guess about his life based on the clues Gainsborough gives us?
- Can you tell where the path begins and ends? What would this path have been like to walk on? Is it far from the city?
- Which parts of the scene are in the sunlight? Which are in the shadows? What kind of weather is Gainsborough choosing to depict?
- Look closely at the details of the painting. Can you pick out Gainsborough’s brush strokes? Are they uniform across the painting, or do they change? What effect does each kind of brush stroke have on the painting?
- Gainsborough made most of his money painting portraits for wealthy English citizens, but said that landscape painting was his pleasure. Why do you think that he preferred painting landscapes? What do you think he liked about this wooded scene?
- Gainsborough often painted landscapes from small models in his studio, constructing miniature trees out of bits of wood and moss. Why do you think he might have done this? How might this painting be different if it was painted in the woods, as opposed to in a studio?
- Gainsborough’s portraits were immensely popular, and toward the end of his life he even was the favorite painter of England’s royal family. His landscapes, however, were not widely appreciated until long after his death. Why do you think his audiences were not interested in landscapes like these? As a 21st-century viewer, do you like his landscapes? Would you commission one if you had the money?
• Paint a landscape using Gainsborough’s method of creating a small model from which to work. Consider elements such as composition, foreground, middle ground, background, and viewpoint, as well as techniques to direct the viewer’s eye to a desired point in the painting.
• Paintings have their own histories during their travels from the artist’s studio to their current homes. Using the information in the text, develop a timeline documenting the travels of this painting. (Keep in mind the accession number assigned to the painting by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This number, 61.9, indicates that this painting was the 9th painting to enter the collection in the year 1961). Using these benchmark dates, write a fictitious narrative describing the owners and homes of this work of art. In your story, was it ever owned by royalty or hung in a castle?
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.