Wooded Landscape with a Boy Leading a Donkey and Dog, and an Extensive Panorama with Buildings and Distant Hills

At first glance, this small painting looks like a spontaneous sketch of bucolic countryside. Closer inspection reveals meticulous brushstrokes, a thoughtful composition, and a setting not quite as untouched as it seems. In the middle distance, a series of structures are just visible along the winding path. Their squat, bulky shapes and a small plume of smoke suggest they might be industrial buildings. In the foreground, a hunched boy in ragged clothes strains to pull a donkey after him, while a little dog runs off ahead.

While Gainsborough was deeply inspired by the work of the great French landscape painter Claude Lorrain, he chose not to populate his own landscapes with the biblical and mythological figures inhabiting Claude’s paintings. In a letter to his close friend William Jackson, Gainsborough explained: “Do you really think that a regular Composition in the Landskip way should ever be fill’d with History, or any figures but such as fill a place (I won’t say stop a gap) to create a little business for the Eye to be drawn from the Trees in order to return to them with more glee.” Gainsborough’s primary concerns were aesthetic, but he may also have been responding to the alarming changes affecting the English countryside in his lifetime. As shared land was privatized, larger farms absorbed smaller ones and traditional country life began to disappear. Gainsborough’s stance on this issue remained deliberately ambiguous. Although his landscapes rarely represent identifiable locations, a “regard for truth” as he described it, prompted him to bear witness to the changes taking place.

Gainsborough had a highly successful career painting portraits of England’s upper classes. However, in another letter to Jackson, he complained of being “sick of Portraits,” and expressed a preference for landscape painting. Unable to make a living from his landscapes, he gave some away to friends and kept the rest. An inscription on the back of this one reveals that it was: “Painted by Gainsborough Given by him to / Ann Vannam Somerville [?Fownes]." Ann-Vannam Somerville married in 1764, and the painting may have been a present from the artist, who also painted her wedding portrait and had painted a portrait of her father a few years earlier.

Thomas Gainsborough

English, 1727–1788

Wooded Landscape with a Boy Leading a Donkey and Dog, and an Extensive Panorama with Buildings and Distant Hills

early 1760s

Oil on canvas

11 7/8 x 13 1/2 in. (30.2 x 34.3 cm)


Gift of the Manton Art Foundation in memory of Sir Edwin and Lady Manton, 2007

2007.8.67


OFF VIEW

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clarke, Jay, ed. Landscape, Innovation, and Nostalgia: The Manton Collection of British Art. Williamstown, MA: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2012.