The first in a series of pieces I will be writing, of my first impressions in viewing a piece of art, be it painting, sculpture, or installation. Thus these pieces will not necessarily be informed by any particular knowledge of the artist, but aim instead to give an interesting summary of the piece, with any particular element that catches my eye. The first painting I am looking at is Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of William Wollaston, c.1759.
The highly varnished finish makes it quite difficult to make out individual brushstrokes on the piece. Where visible the delicacy of brushstroke seems to relate to the supposed importance of what it depicts. So the trees are executed with thick, rougher brushstrokes, which through the application of varnish is brought to the same texture as the more intricate strokes used to depict the man himself. This also helps to get across a sense of realism in relation to the trees, they are full and have a sense of depth, without needing to attempt the time consuming task of painting individual leaves. The same could be said of the greenery in the bottom left corner. When compared to those clumps of grass in earlier Dutch paintings (thinking specifically of Durer’s studies) it is easy to see that Gainsborough is not aiming for high realism, but simply to set the scene. The pleasing silver hue of the tree in the background helps the viewer to understand the fall of light in the painting. There is also perhaps a sense of symbolism in the setting, with the broken tree in the top right, and the slightly worn fence post perhaps chosen to highlight the age of the man’s wealth, and give him a sense of being well established, settled in.
The care taken over depicting Wollatson’s attire suggests that it is fashionable and the fact that he has chosen to wear it at all suggests that it tells us something about his character. The tricorn hat, with visible eblem, implies a military authority, but the casual way in which he holds it suggests that he is at ease with his poistion, and emphasises the relaxation provided by his home setting. His clothes are made from fine fabrics, their silky sheen is well executed, but they are essentially quite simple, giving him a charming ease and self-assured air. The presence of his dog reinforces this casual authority, the dog’s tongue lolls happily, and he looks up adoringly at his master. Wollaston’s mastership of the house behind him is suggested by the fact that it lie between his arm and his coat, as if it were under his protection. A clever trick is used to depict the house itself. We can see that it is quite a grand, probably modern house (showing that he keeps up with architectural trends, thus revealing his education), but by having it obscured by the foliage, Gainsborough has made it difficult to make out the full size of the house – it could recede far back behind the sitter, or it could be only a little larger. So once again we are left to imagine Wollaston’s great wealth. This wealth and high social standing are again hinted at by the river or lake we can see behind him, connoting the fertility of his land, at a time in history when agriculture was still an important means for the aristocracy to maintain their wealth.
The man himself is depicted with a slight stubble: he is thus not hugely concerned with his personal appearance, this gives him an appealing humanity. His hand is in his pocket, and he leans on his fence with his feet crossed. He does not look at the viewer, he instead twists his body and looks off the right of the painting. This use of contrapposto suggests education, and a knowledge of the classical Greek and Roman arts which were so influential at the time. The sky behind him is turbulent, which provides what seems a typical backdrop for his head (none of the portraits it is hung alongside (all of the same period) have their sitters against a clear blue sky), although patches of blue are visible to the left of the painting. Perhaps this sky is indicative of a level of drama and grandeur in the sitter’s life. The trees form a pyramidal composition into which Wollaston fits, accentuating both his height and authority. The piece is over life size, so he is greater in this respect than the viewer. We also view him from below his eye level, looking up at him, which creates a sense of reverence, we look up to him literally and metaphorically. Finally Gainsborough’s use of light emphasises his nobility, as it hits him directly from the left, highlighting the thoughtful expression on his face, and giving a majestic quality.
Overall Gainsborough has created a charming portrait, resulting in a sense of intrigue in William Wollaston himself, and putting across a sense of power and wealth, coupled with a casual and natural authority.
Research into William Wollaston may follow- we shall see if he lives up to Gainsborough’s flattering portrayal.