The Rise of the Middle Class


The Humble King of the Middle Class Artists

As with most of these blogs, I was browsing paintings in the Classical period and The Harvest Wagon caught my eye.  I was curious why someone would want to paint people with a wagon and horses when there was much else going on at the time.  After doing some research into the artist, Thomas Gainsborough, I found he was from a relatively poor family and often painted landscapes from his childhood, as well as numerous drawings and paintings of the middle class.  Although he became a well-known and great artist contracted by many of the affluent, he retained a respect for simplicity and the natural look of things.  His portraits are very staged and while they may flatter the ego of their owner, they probably don’t matter much to people not in the painting.  I am unsure if this was intentional or not, Gainsborough did not have a huge amount of respect for large organizations and aristocrats even though he dealt with them regularly later in his career.  His landscape portraits have a wonderful flow to them, his brush strokes are light and flitting and he learns to put more and more detail into his paintings through his career.  One of his later paintings was a recreation and improvement of The Harvest Wagon, which demonstrates his evolution and mastery in painting after 17 years.


During the Classical Period the middle class gained more fiscal power as the balance of influence was redistributed down the economic ladder due to the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment followers.  Civilizations grew, multiplied, and spread out amongst the land to be America.  In Europe, the Revolution was happening as well.  Young commoners put their talents to use and were rewarded, others through chance and strategy made their way up the social stairway.

Thomas Gainsborough’s career bloomed along with the rise of the middle class and represents “a progress from awkward but charming provincialism to cosmopolitan sophistication” (1).  Thomas started off as the youngest son of a weaver and a nun in a town “of which Daniel Defoe remarked: ‘I know nothing for which this town is remarkable, except tot being very populous and very poor'” (1).  He was able to persuade his father to let him go to art school when he was in his late teens and trained under Hubert Gravelot, an engraver. He developed a style of painting he liked and married the illegitimate daughter of a Duke.  Skipping boring details like his daughters and borrowing against his wife’s dowry, Gainsborough moved to Ipswich and was not able to attract wealthy or prestigious clients, mainly his sales were to “merchants of the town and the neighboring squires” (2).  When his family moved to Bath he learned from van Dike’s paintings, refined his technique, and was finally able to find some respectable wealthy folk to buy his paintings and began submitting to the Royal Art Academy.  He went on to have a dysfunctional relationship with the Academy but became one of the dominant British painters in the 18th century.  He spent the latter part of his years painting landscapes.  Early in his artistic career in 1767 (location unknown) he painted The Harvest Wagon but could not find a buyer, so instead he gave it away.  Seventeen years later in 1784 (location unknown) he painted a newer version, fundamentally the same but on many levels different than his first version.  This version sold though multiple owners at prices from 360,000$ to 450,000$ (3)

The Harvest Wagon, Version 1


Photo source:

The Harvest Wagon, Version 2

Gainsborough-HarvestWagon1784Photo source:

The first painting is much more rough and almost makes the looker dizzy to follow the lines in the painting.  The second portrait has a flow to it, leading towards the center of the painting and around the people.  The second painting is much more detailed than the first, facial expressions of people are evident and not as excited as in the first painting.  Both paintings depict a man helping a woman onto the wagon, the first shows one horse behaving erratically and a man attempting to control it.  The second lacks this horse behavior, but includes a dog and a few sheep as well as a much more detailed landscape and sky.  As was previously stated, in the latter part of his career Grainsborough became a landscape painter which is clearly evident from the improvements in the background detail of the paintings.  Towards the latter part of his career Gainsborough focused less on portraits and more on natural scenes.  Despite becoming a wealthy and famous artist, his artistic focus was still leaning towards nature and the common folk, rather than of wealthy aristocrats in expensive clothes.  This is shown in his drawing A Bridge with Cattle Passing Over.  This was thought to have been done in 1780 or so but the exact date and place is unknown since Gainsborough created many drawings in the twilight years of his career (4)A Bridge leaves nothing to surprise, it is simply capturing a moment in the artist’s mind of everyday life of common people.  While a good portion of Gainsborough’s golden age work focuses on the rich, a comparable portion of his work is of simple life and landscapes, which persevered throughout his life and career as an artist.

A Bridge with Cattle Passing Over

A-bridge-with-cattle-passing-overPhoto source:


Thomas Gainsborough: Artist of a Changing World. Myrone, MartinRosenthal, Michael

Source: History Today. Nov2002, Vol. 52 Issue 11, p16. 8p. 12 Color Photographs, 1 Black and White Photograph.




2 responses to “The Rise of the Middle Class

  1. Well Wayne, I like the way you ramble! Your explanation of Gainsborough’s life and how art impacted it was very easy to understand. You stated Gainsboroughs contribution to the rise of and relation to the middle class very nicely, also the comparison of his two versions of the same subject matter was neat. Thanks!

  2. I like how you described the life of Gainsborough, and how the increase of the middle class lead to the advancement of his artistic ability. It looks like you did a lot of research regarding not only about his art, but also his life.

Say something, I guess.

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