(b. 1727, Sudbury, d. 1788, London)

The Marsham Children

Oil on canvas, 243 x 182 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

In the Rococo period all over Europe Watteau stood as symbol of a new gracefulness and ease: the proof that the painter can tackle apparently flippant subject-matter and yet be a great artist. Watteau's own attitude was soon to matter no longer; he represented something which he might not always have wished to be. His compositions exercised an influence which was perhaps sometimes hardly conscious. A Frenchified grace in genre subjects was attempted everywhere, even in England.

The most personal response to Watteau is in Gainsborough, a great painter who yet seldom painted anything resembling a Watteau subject. Several of Gainsborough's early portraits show him utilizing Watteau's compositions for his sitters. But Gainsborough borrows more than a pose, as his later pictures confirm. It is freedom that exhales from his portraits: the freedom of nature and natural settings is allied to free handling, and the whole expresses the idiosyncratic character of his sitters, so relaxed and yet lively, just like Gainsborough's own nature. The painter who described himself in a letter to a patron as 'but a wild goose at best' was dearly Watteau's cousin, taking the same freedom for the artist as he expressed in his art, and conscious of being the odd man out in ordinary society. Gainsborough, if anyone, was the heir to Watteau's art, but he was not to turn to the 'fancy picture' until late in life; and there would have been little patronage for an English painter producing fêtes galantes in preference to portraits.

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