Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Cottage Children (The Wood Gatherers)

Thomas Gainsborough (British, Sudbury 1727–1788 London)
Oil on canvas
58 1/8 x 47 3/8 in. (147.6 x 120.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 629
This is one of what were called in the eighteenth century "fancy pictures," representing peasant children in rustic settings and inspired by the Spanish artist Murillo (1617–1682). The sentiment expressed in them was pleasing to Gainsborough's contemporaries, who seem not to have remarked in the sitters' hollow-eyed, wistful expressions an undercurrent of deprivation. In 1814 one critic referred to them as the works "on which Gainsborough's fame chiefly rests."
In November 1787, after a visit to Gainsborough’s studio, Henry Bate described the present work in the following terms: "A landscape of uncommon merit . . . a picturesque scene . . . beautifully romantic" into which the artist had introduced three "charming little objects [who] cannot be viewed without the sensations of tenderness and pleasure, and an interest for their humble fate" (quoted in Whitley 1915, p. 291). Such works were known as fancy pieces and enjoyed high praise and high prices in Gainsborough's lifetime; later, however, they gradually fell from favor with audiences who found them sentimental and condescending. More recently there has been a shift in the scholarly literature, and they have been read as a commentary on the poverty and pious industry of the landless poor (Barrell 1980).

The seated boy has been identified as Jack Hill, a beggar boy Gainsborough had met in Richmond (Whitley 1915), and whom he also depicted in another fancy piece in the Museum's collection (89.15.8). F. G. Stephens, writing in the catalogue of the 1885 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition, suggested that the work was a disguised portrait, identifying the children as Charles Marsham, later Earl of Romney, and two of his sisters (Stephens 1885). The second Earl, born in 1777, did have two sisters; the source for this improbable suggestion is not disclosed.

A drawing of about 1780, Studies of Girls Carrying Faggots (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), while not a study for the present painting, relates closely to it. An engraver’s version (Tate Britain, London) of the painting, now thought to be by Gainsborough Dupont (1754–1797), may have been made in preparation for a contemporary print that was never executed; it was later engraved by G. B. Shaw. The MMA painting was engraved in mezzotint by G. H. Every in 1868. Another replica (location unknown) was in Dupont’s estate.

[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester, later 1st Earl of Carnarvon, Highclere, Hampshire (1787–d. 1811); Earls of Carnarvon, Highclere (1811–1923); Henry George Alfred Herbert, 6th Earl of Carnarvon, Highclere (from 1923); [Sulley, London, until 1924; sold for £25,000 to Knoedler]; [Knoedler, New York, 1924; sold $202,000 to Harkness]; Mr. and Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, New York (1924–his d. 1940); Mrs. Edward S. (Mary Stillman) Harkness, New York (1940–d. 1950)
Society for Promoting Painting and Design in Liverpool. "Second Exhibition," August 1787, no. 28 (as "Cottage Children," lent by T. Gainsborough, R.A., London).

London. British Institution. "Gainsborough," 1814, no. 4 (as "Cottage Children," lent by the Earl of Carnarvon).

London. British Institution. June 1844, no. 154 (as "Peasant Children," lent by the Earl of Carnarvon).

London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1881, no. 172 (as "The Wood Gatherers," lent by the Earl of Carnarvon).

London. Grosvenor Gallery. "Thomas Gainsborough, R.A.," 1885, no. 82 (as "The Wood Gatherers," lent by the Earl of Carnarvon).

Paris. Galerie Georges Petit. "Cent chefs-d'œuvre des écoles françaises et étrangères," June 8–?, 1892, no. 12 (as "The Wood Gatherers," lent by lord Garnarvon).

New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "Childhood in Art," November 29–December 18, 1926, no. 8 (as "The Wood Gatherers").

London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Bicentenary Exhibition," December 14, 1968–March 2, 1969, no. 151.

Tokyo National Museum. "Treasured Masterpieces of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," August 10–October 1, 1972, no. 84.

Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. "Treasured Masterpieces of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 8–November 26, 1972, no. 84.

Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 41.

Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 41.

Athens. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. "From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," December 13, 1992–April 11, 1993, no. 36.

Milan. Palazzo Reale. "Il gran teatro del mondo: l'anima e il volto del Settecento," November 13, 2003–April 12, 2004, no. II.170.

New Haven. Yale Center for British Art. "Sensation & Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's 'Cottage Door'," October 6–December 31, 2005, unnumbered cat. (fig. 9).

San Marino, Calif. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. "Sensation & Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's 'Cottage Door'," February 11–May 14, 2006, unnumbered cat. (fig. 9).

William Hazlitt. Criticisms on Art: And Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England. London, 1843, p. 194 [2nd ed., 1856, p. 194], quotes the Morning Chronicle, in which he reviewed the 1814 Gainsborough exhibition and gave preference to "Cottage Children" among the fancy pictures.

George Williams Fulcher. Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. London, 1856, p. 192.

Early Exhibitions of Art in Liverpool with Some Notes for a Memoir of George Stubbs, R.A. Liverpool, 1876, p. 76.

Engravings from the Works of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. by J. Scott, G. H. Every, G. Sanders, and Other Eminent Engravers. London, n.d. [ca. 1880], unpaginated, no. 112, ill., publishes an 1868 engraving by G. H. Every after Lord Carnarvon's "Cottage Children".

F[rederic]. G[eorge]. Stephens. Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. Exh. cat., Grosvenor Gallery. London, 1885, p. 45, no. 82, as "Cottage children, including portraits of Charles Marsham, afterwards Earl of Romney, and two of his sisters".

L[éon]. Roger-Milès. Cent chefs-d'oeuvre des collections françaises et étrangères. Paris, 1892, no. 31, ill. opp. p. 38 (engraving).

Walter Armstrong. Gainsborough & His Place in English Art. London, 1898, pp. 126, 157, 184, 204 [popular ed., New York, 1904, pp. 168, 211, 250, 284–85], attributes the painting to the last few years of the Bath period, that is, the 1770s, and notes that there is a "small sketch or replica" in the Vernon Collection at the National Gallery.

Masters in Art: Gainsborough 2 (1901), p. 39.

William T[homas]. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. New York, 1915, pp. 242, 291–92, 294, quotes Henry Bate-Dudley's admiring account of the picture, which he saw at Schomberg House in November 1787 and which had already been sold to Lord Porchester; identifies the boy as "the Richmond child, Jack Hill"; mentions the sketch or study in the Vernon Collection at the National Gallery and notes that it was probably this study that was exhibited at the Liverpool Society in autumn 1787.

E. Rimbault Dibdin. Thomas Gainsborough, 1727–1788. London, 1923, p. 161.

C. H. Collins Baker. British Painting. London, 1933, p. 279.

H[arry]. B. W[ehle]. "Paintings Lent from the Harkness Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 28 (January 1933), p. 12.

Chauncey Brewster Tinker. Painter and Poet: Studies in the Literary Relations of English Painting, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1937–1938. Cambridge, Mass., 1938, p. 88.

Ellis K. Waterhouse. "Gainsborough's 'Fancy Pictures'." Burlington Magazine 88 (June 1946), p. 140, no. 11, notes that the painting remained with the Earls of Carnarvon until 1924; describes the Vernon picture as an "engraver's version (it was not, in fact, engraved)".

Martin Davies. National Gallery Catalogues: The British School. London, 1946, p. 56, proposes that the painting may have been shown in Liverpool in August 1787.

Ellis Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, p. 104, no. 807, pl. 281.

Isabelle Worman. Thomas Gainsborough: A Biography 1727–1788. Lavenham, 1976, pp. 108, 122.

John Barrell. The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730–1840. Cambridge, 1980, pp. 82–84, 170 n. 83, ill., as one of Gainsborough's late paintings of the children of the poor who, assuming they were industrious, were regarded with benevolence in the writings of the period.

Jack Lindsay. Thomas Gainsborough: His Life and His Art. New York, 1981, pp. 171, 193–94, 223 n. 16.

Michael Rosenthal. Constable: The Painter and His Landscape. New Haven, 1983, pp. 194–95, fig. 234.

Ann Bermingham. Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740–1860. Berkeley, 1986, pp. 52, 54, fig. 26, reproduces it as an illustration of Gainsborough's romantic vision of the vulnerability and innocence of childhood; points out that the fancy pictures are closely related to the society portraits of the same date.

Thomas Gainsborough. Ed. John Hayes. Exh. cat., Palazzo dei Diamanti. Ferrara, 1998, p. 166, remarks that the popularity of the fancy pictures was assured by the immediate sale of this painting at a high price.

Michael Rosenthal. The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: 'a little business for the Eye'. New Haven, 1999, p. 254.

Antonello Cesareo in Flavio Caroli. Il gran teatro del mondo: l'anima e il volto del Settecento. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale. Milan, 2003, pp. 604–5, no. II.170, ill. (color).

Ann Bermingham in Sensation & Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough's "Cottage Door". Ed. Ann Bermingham. Exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. New Haven, 2005, pp. 6–8, fig. 9 (color), states that Murillo's images of beggar children inspired Gainsborough's fancy pictures.

Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 110–12, no. 49, ill. pp. x (gallery installation, color), 111 (color), calls it "Cottage Children (The Wood Gatherers)".

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