British portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough was born on this day in 1727. Happy Birthday, Thomas! To celebrate, let’s talk about a topic that was very important to him – his daughters Mary and Margaret.
There are lots of stories in art history about artists training their daughters to be successful painters. In fact, many of the historical female artists we talk about here and on the DailyArt app got into the profession through their fathers. Thomas Gainsborough really wanted to be one of those artist fathers. He hoped that his daughters would become landscape painters since this was his favorite type of art. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Neither of Gainsborough’s daughters was at all interested in pursuing painting.
Even though they decided not to become artists themselves, Gainsborough’s daughters still have a place in art history, as their father’s favorite subjects. Gainsborough painted Mary and Margaret many times throughout his life. This shows how much he cared about them since it’s well known that he much preferred to paint landscapes when he wasn’t working on commission.
The first known painting of Gainsborough’s daughters is this lovely scene of the girls (about ages three and five) chasing a butterfly. Some people have interpreted this painting as an allegory. It might refer to the innocence of childhood, or, by contrast, to the dangers of being frivolous. It’s hard to be sure. Gainsborough was definitely keen to make sure his daughters didn’t become vain and shallow, but he isn’t known for painting meanings like this into his works. A few years later, we see the girls hugging each other and holding a cat. Only the girls’ faces are fully realized. The rest is sketch-like, so the cat is difficult to see. Gainsborough enjoyed painting animals, so that’s probably why we see his girls with so many different creatures. Even as adults, he once showed them with a dog.
Once you’ve seen Gainsborough’s daughters a few times, they’re easy to recognize. If you take a look at Gainsborough’s self-portrait, you’ll see the family resemblance.
In the painting below, Mary and Margaret sit with sketchbooks in front of a statue. It seems that they learned at least a few drawing skills before losing interest. Unlike in all the works we’ve seen so far, they are not dressed alike here. We might assume that they began to show their individuality more as they got older, or at least that their father gave them more credit for being individuals as they got older. However, they were twinning once again when their father painted their portrait about seven years later.
In case you’re wondering, the closeness implied by these portraits isn’t just a dad’s wishful thinking (like their potential painting careers were). Mary and Margaret Gainsborough were genuinely very close throughout their entire lives. Except for during Mary’s brief and unhappy marriage, they always lived together. And their individual portraits are still together at the Tate in London.
In case you’re not familiar with the birthday boy
Thomas Gainsborough was a popular and influential British painter of the 18th century. He is best known for his fashionable portraits of British aristocrats and nobility, like the “Blue Boy” and the Duchess of Devonshire. However, his heart was truly in landscape painting. He painted lots and lots of beautiful scenes of the British countryside, which were inspiration to several later generations of landscape painters. Today, Gainsborough is appreciated for his contributions to both genres.
- Gallery label: “The Artist’s Daughter Margaret“. London: Tate Britain, May 2007.
- Gallery label: “The Artist’s Daughter Mary“. London: Tate Britain, May 2007.
- DiPalma, Jessica. “Thomas Gainsborough Artist Overview and Analysis“. [Internet]. 2018. TheArtStory.org. Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rohini Iyengar.
- Jones, Jonathan. “The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough (c1756)”. The Guardian online. March 23, 2002.