Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews (c. 1748-9)

Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews is a popular painting. Beloved by visitors to London’s National Gallery, it has become a symbol of Britain in the eighteenth century. Yet long considered quite unimaginatively as a celebration of nature or, from a socialist viewpoint, as a statement of land ownership, the image in these readings seems more appealing to the eye than its meaning is to the mind.1 We need to change that.

Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews is not the equivalent of an eighteenth-century photograph, as all critics have long assumed. That may be what the patron expected but it is not what a great artist supplies. No matter what patrons want, they always get poetry. Therefore, to understand an image like this, we must think from the inside out, from the artist’s point-of-view and not the patron’s while always bearing in mind that every painter paints himself

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Captions for image(s) above:

Gainsborough, Portrait of Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews (c. 1748-9). National Gallery, London

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The first question to ask is: does Mr. Andrews resemble the artist? Yes, he does. The comparison to a self-portrait painted only months earlier demonstrates that they share the same eyebrows and, obviously, the position of their tri-corned hats as well. Mr. Robert Andrews, leisurely landowner, is an alter ego of Mr. Thomas Gainsborough. Surprisingly, no-one has ever noted this before.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Mr. Robert Andrews (c. 1748-9)
Right: Detail of Gainsborough's Self-Portrait (1748)

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Now, what is the rifle for? As another comparison to the same youthful self-portrait shows Andrews carries his long gun with the same leisurely ease that Gainsborough holds his long brush, and at a similar angle. (Guns, as explained in Brush and Palette and Execution of Painting, often symbolize a brush.) Andrews' other arm, meanwhile, is bent like the painter's brush arm with fingers in an identical position seen from a different angle. The hands of their other arms are both hidden. Mr. Andrews thus symbolizes a rich, successful and acknowledged master of painting.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Mr. Robert Andrews

Right: Detail of Gainsborough's Self-Portrait (c. 1739-40)

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And now for Mrs. Andrews. She, too, resembles the artist but his youthful, more feminine face in the earliest surviving self-portrait. Note the shape of their heads, the arch of their hair, their similar mouths, chin and overall proportions. Her face is based on his.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Mrs. Robert Andrews

Right: Detail of Gainsborough's Self-Portrait (c. 1739-40)

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Mrs. Andrews sits by the trunk of a large tree as the artist himself does in a self-portrait. Both figures have their legs crossed. What is most significant about Mrs. Andrews – a glaring fact not always mentioned by those who cannot explain it – is that the book on her lap, or whatever it is, is unfinished – just bare, unpainted canvas. Gainsborough left it that way, not because he forgot about it, but to suggest that Mrs. Andrews holding a shaft of wheat, or perhaps a short branch, like he holds his chalk is painting the very canvas we are looking at. (Velazquez did something similar in his Portrait of the Sculptor Montanes.)

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Mrs. Robert Andrews

Right: Gainsborough, Self-Portrait Sketching, inverted (C. 1754-9)

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Mr. and Mrs. Andrews are both “the artist” because, as always in great art, the artist's mind is androgynous. Critics have noted, though, how the figures and background seem to be in two different realities: “The church is not merely in the distance, the Andrews are separated from it by the land which they own. Similarly,...…their backs are turned to it and the composition does not include a path towards it.”2 As in other masterpieces of this type, like Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe or Mlle. V and Courbet’s Stonebreakers, the figures and the background are not integrated well because they are the painters who painted the background. The landscape is “a painting” so there is no need for a path. The Andrews, husband and wife, are “Gainsborough” in his mind where the mental image of his studio and his conception of Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews have been fused. The painting may on some level be a celebration of nature or a statement of land ownership but, on its poetic level, the subject is creation itself. However, even though there is more to say about this painting than can be discussed here, the unveiling of its creative theme should help you analyze it more. 

More Works by Gainsborough

Notes:

1. Amil Asfour and Paul Williamson, Gainsborough's Vision (Liverpool University Press) 1999, p. 49

2. ibid. p. 52

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