A horse-drawn cart trundles along a woodland path on the way to market. Two boys and their dog walk alongside its giant wheel, while two girls sit perched on top of the produce. Carrots spill out of a basket, and turnips, potatoes and cabbages are loosely piled in. The older girl raises one arm, perhaps to shade her eyes from the flickering sunlight as they pass beneath the trees, or in response to the woodsman gathering firewood.Two weary travellers rest beside the road with their baskets, bundles and dog.
This is one of Gainsborough’s last landscapes, painted about 18 months before he died. The original position of the horse’s head, which was nearer the cart, can now be seen through the paint.
A horse-drawn cart trundles along a woodland path on the way to market. Two small boys and their dog walk alongside its giant wheel, while two girls sit perched on top of the produce. Carrots spill out of a basket, and turnips, potatoes and cabbages are loosely piled in. It is easy to imagine some of the vegetables tumbling out as the cart lurches through the water ahead. The older girl raises one arm, perhaps to shade her eyes from the flickering sunlight as they pass through the woods, or in response to the woodsman gathering fallen branches for firewood. Two weary travellers rest beside the road with their baskets, bundles and dog.
Gainsborough shows accurately how the horse is harnessed to the cart – there are no reins, as this is an old horse who has made the journey to market many times and all he needs to keep him on the path is a tap from the young boy’s fresh-cut stick. The original position of the horse’s head, which was nearer the cart, can now be seen through the paint which has become translucent with age.
The canvas is six feet high and as large as some of Gainsborough’s grand full-length portraits. It was painted at the end of 1786, about 18 months before Gainsborough died. The landscape elements – the position of the trees, and the angle of the gently sloping, uneven track – are based on a very freely painted unfinished oil sketch (private collection) that Gainsborough probably made in the same year. The solitary herdsman in the sketch, following his cows to a watering place, is replaced in the painting with the heavily laden market cart.
Gainsborough frequently drew and painted such ordinary country carts, as seen in his two versions of The Harvest Wagon of 1767 and 1784–5 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, and Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). The horse and cart here are based on a black chalk and grey wash study probably made not much earlier than the painting. Gainsborough painted a slightly larger landscape, Peasant smoking at a Cottage Door (University of California, Los Angeles), in 1787, shortly after The Market Cart, and contemporaries considered that the two paintings went together as ‘companion pictures’.
The Market Cart is neither an accurate representation of rural life in 1786 nor an idealised landscape. If the painting can be said to have a meaning, perhaps it is about transience. We glimpse the market cart as it passes with its glowing carrots, dark-curled cabbages and pearly turnips, which the pretty young girls will have to sell in the market if they are not to be brought back home in a wilted state. Perhaps at the end of his life Gainsborough was fondly recalling days of his Suffolk boyhood, all too quickly passed.
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