In 1759 Gainsborough moved to the fashionable spa town of Bath, where he established a very successful portrait-painting practice and remained for 15 years. He painted this portrait of Dr Ralph Schomberg, aged about 56, in Bath around 1770.
Gainsborough consulted various doctors during his years in Bath, both for his own medical problems and about the recurring mental instability of his elder daughter, Mary. This portrait may have been painted in place of medical fees.
Dr Schomberg stands at a slight angle to us. His pose is upright and subtly deferential, and his expression conveys benevolent concern. The romantically wild yet artificial landscape, with a wooded hillside under a darkening sky, is painted with enormous speed and sureness, using bold unblended brushstrokes so fluid that dark paint has run down the canvas at the bottom left. The red of Schomberg’s frock coat has faded unevenly in the light.
In 1759 Gainsborough moved to the fashionable spa town of Bath, where he established a very successful portrait-painting practice and remained for 15 years. This portrait of Dr Ralph Schomberg, aged about 56, was painted in Bath in about 1770.
The portrait is similar to other robust, outdoor male full-lengths which Gainsborough was painting at the time. Schomberg stands at a slight angle to us. His attitude is upright and subtly deferential, and he seems less at ease in the countryside than Gainsborough’s aristocratic sitters such as John Plampin. He holds his cane in front of him in a grave and thoughtful manner appropriate for a physician. The head of the cane would have been stuffed with pungent herbs which would have been held under the nose to ward off foul smells and disease. He wears a fashionable rolled and powdered wig and an expression of benevolent concern.
The romantically wild yet artificial landscape background, with a wooded hillside under a darkening sky, is echoed by Gainsborough in other full-length portraits of this period. It is painted with enormous speed and sureness, in bold unblended brushstrokes so fluid that dark paint has run down the canvas at the bottom left. Gainsborough’s daughter Margaret observed that he painted with colours that were ‘very liquid’. The crimson pigment in Dr Schomberg’s coat has faded unevenly – in places bleached by sunlight – leaving it a brown-beige colour with some patchy areas of deep red and pink. The extreme fading on Schomberg’s shoulders now looks as though a dusting of powder has fallen from his wig.
Gainsborough consulted various doctors during his years in Bath, both for his own medical problems and about the recurring mental instability of his elder daughter Mary. He was reluctant to accept a previous diagnosis that Mary’s illness was ‘a family complaint’ (possibly a veiled diagnosis of congenital syphilis) and that it was probably incurable. Gainsborough called in Dr Schomberg and Dr Charleton and was relieved when they diagnosed a ‘delirious fever’ and ’soon cured her.‘ However, Mary struggled with mental illness for the rest of her life.
Gainsborough painted four physicians known to have treated himself and his family in Bath. This portrait may have been painted for Dr Schomberg in place of medical fees. At that time, Gainsborough’s portrait charges almost certainly far exceeded his doctors’ fees, but he may have found more rewarding material for portraiture in the attentive expressions of his doctors than in the faces of most of his fashionable Bath sitters.
Ralph Schomberg was the eldest son of the German Jewish doctor Meyer Löw Schomberg, who was one of the most successful physicians in London. Ralph was the black sheep of the family and frequently in debt. In 1777 he was caught stealing money intended for Bath Hospital from the church’s collection plate. He left Bath in shame and settled in Reading, where he died on 29 June 1792.
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