Thomas Gainsborough, English, 1727-1788
Title: The Cottage Girl
Date: 1785
Medium: Oil on canvas
174 x 124.5 cm
Credit Line: Presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)
Object Number: NGI.4529
DescriptionThe ragged child standing forlornly by a stream with a broken pitcher is one of Gainsborough’s most celebrated ‘fancy pictures’. His landscapes, even for portrait backdrops, had long been idealised rural idylls conjured from the imagination and, during the 1780s, he painted a group of country subjects with touching sentiment. These were the artist’s own genuine response to the activities and predicaments of children in a natural setting, and they struck a deep chord at the time. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Gainsborough makes no moral point in these pictures. A fashion for the picturesque, the poetry of Wordsworth and scenes of beggars by Murillo were all contributory factors to his choice for making these paintings. He has adapted motifs from two Murillo paintings, now known to have been at St James’s Palace, close to Gainsborough’s studio on Pall Mall.
A sense of Arcadia is accentuated by the indefinite location, portrayed in loose strokes of green and purple, that blend perfectly with the colours of the main figure. The motif of a dog being held by the subject had earlier been used in Gainsborough’s portraits as a device to engage the viewer. Although reported as intended for the Prince of Wales, this picture was snapped up by Sir Francis Basset, who paid considerably more for it than for a full-length portrait of the same size.

March 2016

ProvenancePurchased, the artist, May 1785, Sir Francis Basset (later Baron de Dunstanville); by descent, Tehidy Castle, Wales; purchased, Arthur Francis Basset, 1907; Asher Wertheimer; Agnew's, 23 January 1907; purchased, Sir Otto Beit, 12 October 1908; by descent in 1930 to his son, Sir Alfred Beit; presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)
Exhibition HistoryBritish Institution, 1814

British Institution, 1842

International Exhibition, London, 1862

Exhibition of the Works of the Old Masters, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1876

Grosvenor Gallery, 1885

Guildhall, London, 1902

Agnew's, London, 1907

Knoedler, London, 1931

Children Through the Ages, Knoedler, London, 1934

Old Master Piantings from the Beit Collection, National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town, 1949-1950

Bicenenary Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968-1969

British Romantic Painting, Grand Palais, Paris, 1972

Thomas Gainsborough, Tate Gallery, London, 1980

Thomas Gainsborough, Grand Palais, Paris, 1981

Acquisitions 1986-88, National Gallery of Ireland, June - July 1988

Thomas Gainsborough, Tate Britain, London, 24 October 2002 - 19 January 2003; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 9 February - 4 May 2003; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 9 June - 14 September 2003

Murillo at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 6 February - 19 May 2013
Label TextIn his later career, Gainsborough was renowned for so called ‘fancy pictures’ - imaginary depictions of rural figures in idealised landscapes. Such works were partly inspired by early romantic poetry and the picturesque landscaping of country estates. Although a romantic image, hardship and poverty is alluded to by the child’s forlorn expression, torn clothes and broken pitcher, brought in order to take water from the stream.

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