A group of cattle and goats has been herded to drink in a stream or pool. Two country girls, a child and a man sit quietly on the sandy bank. The sun begins to sink behind the distant hills, casting a golden evening light over the peaceful woody landscape.
Gainsborough’s painting is based on a drawing he made (private collection). It also echoes a painting by Rubens, now known as The Watering Hole, which Gainsborough saw in London in 1768. But where Rubens’s work, now also in the National Gallery, is energetic and a morning scene, Gainsborough’s, glimpsed in fading light, is tranquil and contemplative.
This painting was exhibited by Gainsborough at the Royal Academy in 1777 and he also made an etching of the scene (Tate Gallery, London).
A herdsman waits on his horse while cattle and goats drink at a woodland pool or stream. The sun is half-sunk behind the distant hills, casting a golden light over the canopies of dense trees and sandy ground. Two country girls with a child and a basket sit beside the water and a man rests behind them. The peacefulness of the group adds to the picture’s sense of tranquillity. One of the girls extends her arm to point to the horizon, perhaps admiring the sunset view, or remarking that it will soon be dark.
Gainsborough based this painting on a chalk drawing that he probably made during the mid-1770s (private collection). In the painting, the trees are denser and more imposing than in the drawing. The winding sandy path in the drawing leads to a pool of water in the painting, fed by a stream trickling over large rocks.
The painting was probably made in London after Gainsborough’s return from Bath in 1774. It was one of six works he sent to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1777, which included two full-length portraits. It was exhibited simply as ‘A large landscape’ and was praised by various visitors and reviewers. The Public Advertiser’s reviewer wrote: ‘’Tis hard to say in which branch of the art Mr Gainsborough excels, landscape or portrait painting.‘
Although contemporaries saw the influence of the great seventeenth-century Flemish master Rubens in Gainsborough’s new richness of colour and energetic brushwork in his work from the late 1760s, there is no evidence that Gainsborough made studies or copies of landscapes by Rubens. However, in 1768 he did see Rubens’s painting now known as ’The Watering Place‘ in the London home of the 3rd Duke and Duchess of Montagu when he painted their portraits. Gainsborough was so impressed by Rubens’s painting that he advised his friend, the actor and playwright David Garrick, to invent an excuse to call upon on the Duke of Montagu ’to see his Grace’s Landskip of Rubens‘.
While Gainsborough’s ’large landscape‘ echoes some elements from the Rubens, it is not directly copied from it. His debt to Rubens’s picture is most evident in the soaring mass of bluish-green trees, and his decision to add a watering place and cattle. Whereas Rubens’s cattle are unruly and energetic beasts, Gainsborough’s are placid and peaceful. Rubens’s picture is a brightly lit morning scene, but Gainsborough’s scene is a tranquil and contemplative dream of rural peace, glimpsed in the fading evening light. When Gainsborough’s painting entered the National Gallery in 1827, it became known as ’The Watering Place', like Rubens’s painting, which was purchased for the Gallery in 1936.
Gainsborough also made a soft-ground etching with aquatint of the scene (Tate Gallery, London), which was not published during his lifetime. The etching differs slightly from the painting – the herdsman, goats, the other man and the child are missing, and the trees are less dense.
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