Thomas Gainsborough's The Marsham Children, considered among his finest works, is something of a divergence from his usual style. While the majority of his works are either landscapes or portraits, this one pays unmistakeable homage to the style of Antoine Watteau. Indeed, Gritchka's description of the overarching themes of Watteau's work is perfectly applicable here:
His scenes have no supernatural source of light. A gentle light pervades them and lights up all the main parts, but it is simply in the air, not streaming from a source. His characters live in the rich woodland of roses and oak leaves deemed bucolic in that period; but in contrast with others, his figures have believable faces, and bend to each other, pay attention, look amused, look away, get caught in half actions, as real people would. They are elegant, not mock peasants, but alive.
The individual lines of sight of the four subjects create an extraordinarily compelling sort of dynamic in this painting. In the center, with the younger girl, it begins. She looks to her older sister, who looks to the brother, who finds the most (emphatically) distant sister, who looks to you. You are engaged. You followed it from the center, and it ended with you--where it began? Each character looks to someone more distant: the space between the smaller sister and the subject of her glance is the shortest distance, the older sister looks further, the brother further still, and the girl with the ostentatious, perfectly individual bright red hair finds you, against your expectations. Or perhaps her brother is seeking her with his eyes, but looking over her, because she is no longer in his world.
There is a very special momentum derived from this dynamic of sight. Of course, every artist knows that to look a character out at the viewer of his or her painting is to bring the viewer in; in portraits, for instance, the subject is given eternal life in the sense that he or she can forever glance into the eyes of the most distant, time-removed generations. But this is no portrait, and the glance of the youngest child is uncanny in this sense, that only one character among four is conscious of our world. This redhead is special, and she is looking at you, perhaps in idle waking dream, perhaps with some comprehending lucidity.
The dogs opt for her attention, establishing her bond and oneness with nature, in contrast to the awkwardness of her sisters gestures with what could be either some deliberately collected flora or merely something trapped in the fabric of her clothing.
She is looking simultaneously outward and inward, she is quizzical and all-knowing. What are we seeing? Are we perhaps seeing ourselves, is this what we become when we look into a painting, with the world going on with its business behind us, either playfully or fretfully? The circle is more than merely the sight-dynamic, it is considerably more profound. You are looking into the window, and so is the redhead. You are the redhead, who looks into the window, unaware of what is going on behind you. As you look, you change places. As long as you look into the window, you are the distant child with the uncanny hair, you are inward-looking and outward-looking, there is something different about you, comprehending, powerful, extraordinary, radiant, mysterious.
Thomas Gainsborough completed The Marsham Children in 1787, one year before his death.
Gritchka's Antoine Watteau