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Pastoral Landscape (Rocky Mountain Valley with a Shepherd, Sheep, and Goats)

Thomas Gainsborough, English, 1727 - 1788

Made in Great Britain, Europe

c. 1783

Oil on canvas

40 3/8 x 50 3/8 inches (102.6 x 128 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

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

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

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With its rough, irregular masses of color and its soft light, this painting is a perfect example of what in eighteenth-century England would have been considered a picturesque landscape. The artist Sir Joshua Reynolds described Gainsborough's working method in the following way: "From the fields he brought into his painting-room, stumps of trees, weeds, and animals of various kinds; and designed them, not from memory, but immediately from the objects. He even framed a kind of model of landscape, on his table; composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees, and water." Thus it is entirely possible that this scene was composed largely in Gainsborough's imagination.

Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Both Waterhouse and Woodall have pointed out that the "Rocky Landscape" exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 (no. 34) could be either of two pictures: this painting or a landscape formerly in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland and now in the National Gallery of Scotland (Thomas Gainsborough, Rocky Wooded Landscape with Dell and Weir, 1783, oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 56 1/2” {116.2 x 143.4 cm.}, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland). In both, the artist depicts a wild mountainous landscape with sheep and shepherds; a mountain stream running from left to right diagonally through the scene; and, incongruously, an Italianate hill town, rising up in the middle distance.

    Two contemporary descriptions of the picture exhibited in 1783 only partially resolve the problem. Horace Walpole, in his notes on the Royal Academy for that year, remarked that the mountain landscape was "too green,"1 and that in it, sheep were approaching the water to drink. This would seem at first glance to refer to the Philadelphia picture. Here, the shepherd actually stands by the sheep as they drink from the stream, whereas in the Edinburgh picture the sheep are nowhere near the water or their shepherd. Then, too, the Philadelphia picture's overall tonality is a yellowish-green, although its colors are now far from fresh. It is hard to understand how Walpole could have called the vivid blue-purple tonality of the Edinburgh landscape green. On the other hand, Bate-Dudley's review of the academy exhibition for April 30, 1783, in the Morning Herald quoted by Whitley, seems to refer unmistakably to the Edinburgh picture: "A precipice is the principal object in the foreground, with several figures, sheep, &c., descending to a rivulet that gushes through a cranny in the earth."2 While the foreground of the Philadelphia picture could conceivably be called a precipice, the word is far more appropriate for the Edinburgh landscape, as is the description of the stream gushing forth from a cranny in the earth. But what finally indicates that it was probably the Edinburgh picture that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 is the use of the phrase ''several figures," for there are three in that picture, whereas the Philadelphia landscape has only one.

    In 1783 Gainsborough wrote to his friend William Pearce (1751-1842), chief clerk of the Admiralty, describing a trip he was about to undertake with his friend the Ipswich attorney Samuel Kilderbee to the Lake Country, "to show you that your Grays and Dr. Brownes were tawdry fan-Painters. I purpose to mount all the Lakes at the next Exhibition, in the great stile."3 By Gray and Brown, he was referring to the poet Thomas Gray's (1716-1771) journal of a visit to the Lakes in 1769, published in 1775,4 and Dr. John Brown, vicar of Newcastle, who published A Description of the Lake at Cumberland in 1771 extolling the beauties of the Lake Country.5 Brown's publication played a part in arousing interest in the Lake District at just the time when William Gilpin (1724-1804) was formulating his theory of the picturesque. Gilpin was born in Cumberland, and as a result of his travels throughout Britain in the 1760s and 1770s formed a theory in which he defined a category of aesthetic appreciation in landscape that was neither the beautiful nor the sublime.6 For a landscape to be picturesque, it should be rough, irregular, with varieties of texture and color. A landscape that lacked these qualities--say, the flat countryside around Sudbury and Ipswich--might be beautiful, but it was not picturesque. Gilpin's Essay on Picturesque Beauty was not published until 1792, although it had been written sixteen years earlier; and it is unlikely that Gainsborough, who was far from being an intellectual or literary man, would have read the book. Yet his comments to Paine about the works of Brown and Gray show that he was acquainted with these theories, which were certainly discussed by his friends. The rocky mountain series of the 1780s is but the expression in paint of the changing response to English scenery, for only at the end of the century is English landscape appreciated with the same reverence the mid-century Englishman reserved for the Roman Campagna.

    There is no way to know whether the Philadelphia landscape either preceded or followed the trip to Cumberland in 1783, although if the trip was undertaken in the spring or summer (when the Lake District is usually visited), the Edinburgh picture, exhibited at the academy in the spring, was, paradoxically, painted before that visit. It is thus possible that the Philadelphia picture, as well as other mountain landscapes from this time, such as the Rocky Mountain Scene painted on glass for Gainsborough's Exhibition Box (c. 1781-82, transparency on glass, 11 x 13 1/4, London, Victoria and Albert Museum), were all composed in Gainsborough's imagination. To explain this anomaly, we must turn to two contemporary descriptions of Gainsborough's method of composition. The first is by Reynolds (1723-1792) and occurs in his Fourteenth Discourse: "From the fields he brought into his painting-room, stumps of trees, weeds, and animals of various kinds; and designed them, not from memory, but immediately from the objects. He even framed a kind of model of landskips, on his table; composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees, and water."7 Then there is the reminiscence of an "Amateur of Painting," quoted by Whitley, who "more than once sat by him of an evening and [saw] him make models--or rather thoughts--for landscape scenery on a little old-fashioned folding oak table...[on which] he would place cork or coal for his foregrounds; make middle grounds of sand and clay, bushes of mosses and lichens, and set up distant woods of broccoli.''8

    As John Hayes has pointed out, Gainsborough was not really sensitive to mountain scenery9 and there is little of the sense of awe, scale, horror, or immensity felt by Brown in the mountain series. Indeed, their beautiful lies in the unnatural perfection of their compositions, the strange and delicate colors, which somehow convey a sense of the gloomy, moisture-laden atmosphere of mountainous terrain. One critic who might be expected to have appreciated these direct precursors to Turner's (1775-1851) landscapes is John Ruskin (1812-1900 ). In the first volume of Modern Painters he wrote about another Gainsborough landscape, A Romantic Landscape with Sheep at a Fountain (c. 1783, 60 1/2 x 73 1/2", London, Royal Academy).10 Worth quoting here because it might have been written about the Philadelphia picture, it says eloquently both what is remarkable about these mountain landscapes and where they fail.
    Nothing can be more attractively luminous or aerial than the distance of the Gainsborough, nothing more bold or inventive than the forms of its crags and the diffusion of the broad distant light upon them, where a vulgar artist would have thrown them into dark contrast. But it will be found that the light of the distance is brought out by a violent exaggeration of the gloom in the valley; that the forms of the green trees which bear the chief light are careless and ineffective; that the markings of the crags are equally hasty; and that no object in the foreground has realization enough to enable the eye to rest upon it.11

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 131-133.

    1. William T. Whitley. Artists and Their Friends in England, 1700-1799. 2 vols. London and Boston, 1928, vol. 2, p. 382.
    2. William T. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. London and New York, 1915, p. 204.
    3. Mary Woodall, ed. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. Rev. ed. Bradford, 1963. no. 64, p. 125.
    4. Thomas Gray, The Poems of Mr. Gray to Which Are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life aud Writings by W. Mason (York, 1775).
    5. John Brown, A Description of the Lake at Keswick (and the Adjacent Country) in Cumberland Communicated in a Letter to a Friend by a Late Popular Writer (Kendal, 1771).
    6. Carl Paul Barbier. William Gilpin. Oxford, 1963. pp. 98-108.
    7. Robert R. Wark, ed. Sir Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art. San Marino, California, 1959, p. 250.
    8. Quoted by William T. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. London and New York, 1915, p. 369.
    9. John Hayes, "Gainsborough's Later Landscapes," Apollo, n.s., vol. 80. (July 1964), p. 23.
    10. John Hayes. The Landscape Paintings ofThomas Gainsborough: A Critical Text and Catalogue Raisonné. London and Ithaca, New York, 1982, vol. 2, p. 503, no. 138 (as "Rocky Wooded Landscape with Shepherd, Figure and Dog, Goat and Sheep at a Fountain, and Distant Village and Mountains").
    11. John Ruskin. The Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, 1903-12. vol. 3, p. 190.

    A. E. Fletcher, Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. (London, 1904), p. 221; William Roberts. Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures Formed by John H. McFadden, Esq., of Philadelphia, Pa. London, 1917. p. 19, repro. opp. p. 19; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. "The Inaugural Exhibition of the New Museum of Art Fairmount." The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, vol. 23, no. 119 (March 1928), p. 20; Roger Hinks and Naomi Royde-Smith. Pictures and People: A Transatlantic Criss-Cross Between Roger Hinks in London and Naomi Royde-Smith (Mrs. Ernest Milton) in New York, Boston, Philadelphia During the Months of January, February, March in the Year 1930. London, 1930, pp. 155-56?; Ellis K. Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, pp. 31, 119, no. 968, pl. 258; Mary Woodall, ed. The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough. Rev. ed. Bradford, 1963, p. 28; Giuseppe Gatt, Gainsborough (London, 1968), p. 38, pls. 62-63; Ronald Paulson.Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century London, 1975, pl. 154; Allen Staley. "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma Tadema." Apollo, n.s., vol. 100 (July 1974), p. 36; John Hayes. The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: A Critical Text and Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. London and Ithaca, New York, 1982, vol. 1, p. 140, vol. 2, p. 511, no. 143, p. 510 fig. 143.

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