A MOMENT OBSERVED

(detail)

The benefit of looking at an unfinished painting is that one can get a peak into the mind the painter, in this case Gainsborough at the Princeton University Art Museum. Clearly visible is how he worked up a painting, starting with sketching in his composition on the canvas.

The show, Gainsborough Family Album, is just that – portraits of his extended family. There are numerous unfinished works because with family members, unlike commissions, Gainsborough could take a painting only as far as he wanted or maybe as far as he had time to. In any case, these paintings provide a great opportunity to gain an understanding of his approach to painting.

With a few lines on the canvas he would first note the composition, including a careful outline of face with placement of the eyes and nose. From that point he seems to have concentrated on the face only, adding hair and clothing notations as he felt necessary to keep the face from becoming isolated. His edges and turning points are soft bringing to mind Leonardo da Vinci. The soft gray of the ground supplies the shadows shaping the face. The ground’s tonality is not far from that of the light masses of the face. The whole painting is done with great economy of both paint and detail. The beauty is that, despite the softness of his faces, the portraits carry great character.

According to the catalog, one of the reoccurring complaints about Gainsborough’s portraits in his day was the lack of finish that he gave the sitters’ garments. In my view, had Gainsborough used a more academic finish on the clothes, they would have reminded me of an ocean roller crashing around a rock on the beach: a lot of action surrounding an immovable object. Leaving the clothes to softly flow around the face like a gently rising tide works well – unobtrusive, but present. In the portraits where he gave the garments more development, he also further developed the face, which kept both in harmony.

You can almost see Gainsborough thinking as he paints – working out new ideas and never feeling compelled to complete the painting.

Parking near the Princeton University Art Museum may be a challenge but that is a small price to pay for this show. This excellent show runs through June 9th.

J. Clayton Bright