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Cottage Door

Date: ca.1780
58 1/4 x 47 1/4 in. (148 x 120 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 22.3
Label Text:Like many eighteenth-century British artists who earned their livings through fashionable portraiture, Gainsborough would have preferred to devote himself to a different mode of art. Weary of the business of "face-painting," he occasionally expressed a desire to "walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease." He never carried out this fantasy, but periodic visits to the countryside provided rich impressions that he later reformulated in landscape paintings and rustic genre scenes. The young Uvedale Price who accompanied him on his rural expeditions recalled that Gainsborough could be "severe and sarcastic: but when we came to cottage or village scenes, to groups of children, or to any objects of that kind which struck his fancy, I have often remarked in his countenance an expression of particular gentleness and complacency."
Other painters routinely toured rural England on sketching trips, but Gainsborough seems to have gone in search of spiritual sustenance as well as artistic material. His conception of the countryside as a place where life could be enjoyed "in quietness and ease" reflects the romantic sensibilities of his time-- particularly the ideal of rural retirement that colors much contemporary poetry. This poetic concept fed a burgeoning national nostalgia for the idyllic rusticity of a mythical "olde England," and also informed the genteel fantasy of cottage life as an existence of wholesome simplicity and robust health, rather than of poverty and hard labor. The artificiality of Gainsborough's concept of rural cottage life is suggested by the fact that although he began to record scenes of peasant families gathered outside their woodland cottages in the late 1760s, it was only after his 1774 move from Bath to London (when his distance from the countryside was greatest and the demands of his portrait practice most taxing) that he became deeply engaged in the theme as a vehicle for expressing the pleasurable sensations he associated with rural domesticity.
The present painting, known since the mid nineteenth century as The Cottage Door, has long been considered the consummate expression of Gainsborough's wistful, imaginative ideal of a simpler way of life. When shown along with five of his other landscapes at the Royal Academy in 1780, it reminded a writer for The Morning Chronicle of the Garden of Eden. "This beautiful scene," he wrote, "where serenity and pleasure dwell in every spot, and the lovely figures composed in the finest rural style, their situation worthy of them, forms a scene of happiness that may truly be called Adam's paradise." Three decades later, J.M.W. Turner described The Cottage Door in more concrete terms, as an image of "pure and artless innocence," worthy of esteem because of its "truth of forms, expression, full-toned depth of colour; and expertness of touch carrying with it the character of vigorous and decaying foliage."
Turner was not alone in asserting the "truth" of The Cottage Door, but other early commentators drew attention to its artificiality, both as a landscape painting and as a vision of rural society. In a description of 1819, William Carey noted that the painting evoked "those ideas of innocent delight and happiness, which we have been taught, in our early days, to associate with the lowliest condition, in the retirement of the country," but he acknowledged that this concept was a fantasy, adding, "Why is it that moralists and preceptors have, in all ages, formed this delusive opinion?" Others attributed the appeal of Gainsborough's painting to his sanitized treatment of rural poverty. After closely studying The Cottage Door during the summer of 1812, the watercolorist Thomas Hearne observed that Gainsborough's "representations of simple life are given with such taste as to delight and never offend. He is never coarse; His Peasant in rags has no filth; no idea of dirt & wretchedness is excited." Today, art historians continue to tease out the disparities between Gainsborough's rustic ideal and the actual circumstances of life in late eighteenth-century rural England.
Although undoubtedly informed by Gainsborough's actual experiences in the English countryside, the ultimate source of the imagery of The Cottage Door is seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish landscapes and rustic genre scenes. The growing British market for such paintings provided Gainsborough and his colleagues with strong incentive for treating native subject matter in a similar mode. The rich palette of The Cottage Door, together with its dramatic effects of light and shade, and the lush, vigorous handling of the foliage, all reflect Gainsborough's emulation of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). However, in order to evoke the warm atmosphere of a summer evening, Gainsborough very likely relied on his own increasingly sophisticated experiments in artificial lighting. Since the 1760s he had been in the habit of painting by candlelight. His continuing fascination with luminous effects inspired him, around 1781, to experiment with transparent paintings on glass plates, lit from behind by candles. Analogous effects are seen here in the glowing sunset and flickering lights that relieve the deep shadows.
The Cottage Door is generally recognized as the most majestic and effectively composed of Gainsborough's numerous renditions of this theme. X-radiographs and recent technical analysis have shown that the design of the painting was not entirely premeditated, but evolved gradually as the artist painted. As described in the Technical Notes above, Gainsborough initiated the painting on a smaller, horizontal canvas in which the figure group dominated the landscape setting. After the painting was fairly well advanced, he expanded the composition to a vertical format by adding canvas sections at the top and bottom. The upper extension was far greater than the lower, resulting in an enhanced sense of upward lift and expansiveness. Physical elevation of the canvas also elevated the painting's tone, fundamentally altering the impression it makes on a viewer. In this way, Gainsborough transformed what was once an anecdotal scene of a mother surrounded by several voracious children into a more stately and dignified scene possessing something of the grandeur and generality of history painting. We now view the figures with distance and detachment, as generic types of rustic simplicity. Gainsborough's incremental development of the painting in the direction of more dignified and impressive effects confirms John Hayes's observation that around 1780 the artist embarked on a deliberate strategy to convince the public of the merit of his landscapes, which had failed to achieve the commercial success of his portraits. In The Cottage Door we see him spontaneously inventing a personal mode of grand-manner landscape painting, modeled not on the prestigious classical ideal of Italianate scenery, but on more modest prototypes of Dutch and Flemish landscapes and low-life genre scenes.
In formulating The Cottage Door, Gainsborough also built on his own previous landscape paintings, particularly The Woodcutter's Return of 1772-73. Here, he has retained the woodland setting and vertical format, but the cattle, shepherdess, and woodcutter in the earlier painting are replaced in the Huntington canvas by the dramatically spotlit cottage and figures, nestled among overhanging trees. Both pictures are framed at right by a gnarled tree tilting toward the center, and at left by an echoing tree, beneath which we glimpse a distant landscape prospect. Gainsborough tightened this structure in The Cottage Door by moving the two framing trees closer together so that they form a triangular structure. The apex of the triangle actually occurs on the canvas extension, so that one important effect of enlarging the composition was the explicit articulation of this geometric structure, which had originally been incomplete and implicit. Similar considerations probably led Gainsborough to add the angular figure of a seated boy at the far right of the cottage door, where he demarcates the lower right corner of the pyramidal figure group. X-radiographs reveal the figure as an afterthought, introduced in order to reinforce the geometrical underpinnings of the composition. Yet another triangle is created by the diagonal line of foliage running from the upper right corner down to the left edge of the canvas, where it joins another implied diagonal connecting the rustic bridge and figure group with the burdock plant in the lower right foreground. The geometric rigor of this composition is unusual for Gainsborough and (together with the extension of the canvas itself) attests to the special pains he took in developing this exhibition piece as an expression of his ambitious conception of rustic landscape painting.
Yet another important change carried out during the execution of The Cottage Door was the modification of the hairstyle of the standing woman. X-radiographs reveal the compact arrangement that Gainsborough painted originally, prior to substituting the higher and more elaborate style seen in the finished painting. Whereas the original coiffure would have been consistent with the simple style that Gainsborough generally adopted in depictions of peasant women, the altered arrangement approximates the shape and height that were then fashionable among the artist's upper-class female portrait subjects. Like the physical elevation of the canvas, Gainsborough intended the woman's heightened hairstyle to inflect the painting with an air of dignity and refinement. However, more than any other element of this rural fantasy, it was Gainsborough's elegant characterization of the cottage-woman that threatened the suspension of disbelief among early viewers of The Cottage Door. A sympathetic critic writing for the Literary Gazette observed in 1818, "The beauty of the female figure is too delightful to be questioned, though perhaps the artist has gone as far in giving it grace and elegance as his subject would permit.... It is said that the Duchess of Devonshire sat for this lovely cottager." The association of the Duchess of Devonshire with The Cottage Door is surely spurious, but the existence of such a legend speaks to the incongruous impression that the elegant female cottager produced on early viewers of the painting, who felt obliged to account for her surprising appearance.
Through numerous nineteenth-century exhibitions and reproductions, The Cottage Door has become established as one of the icons of Gainsborough's art, yet he evidently found it no easier to sell than the vast majority of his landscape paintings. For six years after its exhibition, the painting remained in the artist's studio, before finally selling to his friend and patron Thomas Harvey. Undeterred, Gainsborough continued to develop the theme and composition of The Cottage Door in new works of art. Indeed, the last large landscape that he produced, within months of his death, was essentially a reworking of the present painting. In that final work, Gainsborough repeated The Cottage Door's vertical format, the gnarled tree trunk at right gesturing toward an open landscape at left, and the dramatically spotlit, pyramidal group of hungry children with their attractive mother, gathered outside a rustic cottage. The persistence with which Gainsborough revisited the pictorial and thematic ideas of The Cottage Door indicates the significance that he attached to the work. As both a public statement and a private meditation, the painting crystallizes the complexity of Gainsborough's approach to depicting the English countryside, epitomizing the heightened ambition and imaginative sensibility that he brought to the landscapes of his late career.

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