Rest by the Way

Thomas Gainsborough, English, 1727 - 1788

Made in England, Europe


Oil on canvas

40 1/8 x 58 inches (101.9 x 147.3 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 277, European Art 1500-1850, second floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1895

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  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Painted in 1747, Rest by the Way is a superb example of Gainsborough's early landscape style and, as one of the few paintings from any period of his career that is signed and dated, is a linchpin for evaluating the artist's early development. The composition appears to be artless but is actually quite complex, although the elements themselves are simple: a dark wood of beech trees at the left; a pool of water opposite; a rutted path sloping downhill in the center and winding away into the distance in the background at the right; the whole scene permeated with the feel of a day in early spring, soon after a shower of rain, when the light in the blue sky is made fitful by swiftly scudding clouds.

    But these components are arranged with the precision of an architect's plans. In each of the picture's receding planes, Gainsborough has placed figures and animals, thus providing a scale with which the viewer can measure the distance his eye travels. The abrupt transitions from plane to plane are softened by the device of placing those animals--the back of the ox disappearing, the sheep grazing--just at the point where the eye has to jump from a foreground plane to one beyond it. The balance of the picture is preserved not by placing masses of equal volume against each other but by contrasting mass and darkness against emptiness and light and dividing these two distinct areas by the winding road in which the ox serves as a kind of fulcrum in the center.

    Rest By the Way is organized on Dutch seventeenth-century principles of landscape design, and it would be possible to point to any number of works by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682) or Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683) that its composition resembles;1 but the soft roll of the terrain, the feathery clouds, the way in which clear gray light dapples the scene, and the delicate, silvery grays and greens in which the picture is painted, all look to the Continental rococo style. Within Gainsborough's oeuvre, we can compare this painting to the River Scene with Figures and a Dog Barking at a Swallow (1746-47, oil on canvas, 30 x 59 1/2” {76.2 x 151 cm.}, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland), in which the exquisitely painted figures bend and posture with all the bravura of figures by Francesco Guardi (1712-1793).

    There is also a subject in Rest by the Way--or perhaps it is more accurate to say a nonsubject. A traveler has stopped to rest by the side of a road on a spring day, still holding his dog by a leash in his right hand and a staff in his left. His pose, reclining on the ground with legs crossed, once again recalls any number of such figures in Dutch pictures. Behind him another man emerges from a wood, his left hand clutching something we cannot make out--a walking stick or, more sinister, the hilt of a sword; his right hand reaching into his breast pocket for something we cannot see--a pinch of snuff...or a pistol. Disconcertingly, this second man, whose distinct physiognomy suggests a portrait, stares not at the traveler but straight out at us, as if to acknowledge that since the party of travelers we can see disappearing into the far distance has passed beyond earshot, we, the spectators, are the only witnesses to what is about (or not about) to happen; we, that is, and the traveler's faithful dog, who has also seen the intruder, and who has bristled, turned, and will in one moment break the stillness with a warning bark. In a split second our traveler will turn, but what will happen next Gainsborough does not tell us. Will the stranger in the wood turn out to be a harmless poacher? Or is he a highwayman intent upon robbing or killing the unarmed traveler? In terms of Gainsborough's own art, the narrative here seems to be unique. And not only unique, but contrary to his stated views on the function of the human figure in landscape, written to William Jackson on August 23, 1767: "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) or to create a little business for the Eye to be drawn from the Trees in order to return to them with more glee."2

    Hayes points out that x-radiographs of this painting reveal a building with a gabled roof originally behind the trees to the right, but otherwise there are no pentimenti.3

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 111-113.

    1. Particularly Ruisdael's Forest (67 3/8 x 76 3/8'', Paris, Louvre, on deposit at Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse). See John Hayes's discussion in the catalogue of the Gainsborough exhibition held at the Tate Gallery (London, 1980-81, no. 80).
    2. Mary Woodall, ed. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. Rev. ed. Bradford, 1963, no. 49, p. 99.
    3. John Hayes. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: A Critical Text and Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. London and Ithaca, New York, 1982, vol. 2, no. 22, fig. 22b.

    George Williams Fulcher. Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R..A. 2nd ed. Edited by E. S. Fulcher. London, 1856. p. 208; Catalogue of the W. P. Wilstach Collection, Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. Suppl. Edited by Carol H. Beck. Philadelphia, 1897, no. 187; Catalogue of the W. P. Wilstach Collection, Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. Edited by Carol H. Beck. Philadelphia, 1900, no. 60, repro. opp. p. 48; Catalogue of the W. P. Wilstach Collection, Memoria1 Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. Edited by Carol H. Beck. Philadelphia, 1906, no. 112, repro.; Catalogue of the W.P. Wilstach Collection, Memorial Hall. Philadelphia, 1922, p. 51, no. 124, repro. opp. p. 52; Ellis K. Waterhouse.Gainsborough. London, 1958, pp. 12, 107, no. 831, pl. 23 (as "Road through a Wood with a Boy Resting and Dog"); Nottingham, University Art Gallery. Landscapes by Thomas Gainsborough, 1962 (by John Hayes), pp. 671-72, fig. 5; Elizabeth Ripley, Gainsborough (London, 1964), repro. p. 9; Giuseppe Gatt, Gainsborough (London, 1968), p. 18, pls. 2-3; John Hayes. The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough. 2 vols. London, 1970. New Haven, 1971, pp. 133-34; Allen Staley. "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma Tadema." Apollo, n.s., vol. 100 (July 1974), p. 36; John Ingameils, "Gainsborough at the Tate Gallery," The Burlington Magazine, vol. 122, no. 932 (November 1980), pp. 779-80, fig. 91; Jack Lindsay, Thomas Gainsborough: His Life and Art (London, 1981), p. 22; John Hayes. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: A Critical Text and Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. London and Ithaca, New York, 1982, vol. 1, pp. 46, 48-51, 65, pls. 58, 60 (details), vol. 2, pp. 312, 324, 349-50, no. 22, figs. 22, 22a (detail), 22b (x-radiograph detail).

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