Object Lessons: Gainsborough, Corot, and the Landscape of Nostalgia

A Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door by the great English artist Thomas Gainsborough is on display at the Timken and featured alongside the View of Volterra by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot from the museum’s permanent collection. On loan from UCLA’s Hammer Museum, the painting will be part of a dossier exhibition called Object lessons: Gainsborough, Corot, and the Landscape of Nostalgia which runs through April 6.

A Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door, is one of Gainsborough’s most famous paintings in the idealized rustic genre. Its showing at the Timken represents a major partnership with UCLA to allow the public to see a painting that usually remains in storage. 

Gainsborough’s Cottage Door will be displayed together with Corot’s View of Volterra, painted 50 years apart, to demonstrate how landscape painting changed at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. 

Gainsborough painted a scene of happy peasants resting after a hard day of labor that does not reflect reality. Even in the eighteenth century it was a part of nostalgic rural lore derived from literature. Half-a-century later, Corot painted the approach to the Italian town of Volterra as a memory of time past. The painting is not a topographical view of the village but a peaceful recollection of an idealized hill town still rooted in a life unchanged through the centuries. Corot gave no indication of the modern world, rendering the sort of unspoiled place that his patrons travelled to see. Both artists used nostalgia to create the subject for their paintings. 

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the most important artists of eighteenth century Europe, who painted in England at the time of the American Revolution. Known primarily for his portraits of British aristocracy and royalty, he worked in a lyrical and colorful style with dazzling brushwork and an instinctive attention to likeness in the representation of his sitters.

However, Gainsborough preferred to paint landscapes and spent much of his career creating ideal views of an imaginary Britain, with hills and dales, moors and rivers, castles and cattle crossing streams, occasionally populated with lovers, shepherds and contented peasants. Gainsborough was a founding member of Great Britain’s Royal Academy of  Arts and exhibited his works to great acclaim from 1769 to 1784. 

Born in East Anglia, Gainsborough moved to London at age thirteen where he trained with French émigrés. He developed a style of portraiture that featured small full-length  sitters, individually or in groups. He moved to Bath in 1759, where he began to paint on the scale of life. His flair and ability to capture, for a contemporary audience, the  sophistication of a Van Dyck from 150 years earlier made him the most fashionable portraitist in England. He moved to London in 1774, where his reputation remained among the most important in Britain. He died in 1788.

October 4, 2013 - April 6, 2014