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Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
Master Nicholls (known as The Pink Boy
since the mid-19th century)
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When this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, the St. James’s Chronicle described it as ‘a beautiful boy in a Vandyke dress, the grandson of the late Dr. Nicholls’. Dr. Nicholls had been a well-known anatomist while the boy’s other grandfather was Dr. Richard Mead, a celebrated physician and patron of the arts. Little is known about Master Nicholls himself, although he may have studied at Oxford and become a lawyer.

Gainsborough painted him in fancy dress. He is wearing the type of costume worn in Anthony Van Dyck’s portraits of the 1630s and 1640s. Although such costume was fashionable among adults for masquerades (a kind of fancy-dress party) during the 18th century, in this instance it also suggests the make-believe of childhood. The child is posing as an adult of another age. Van Dyck’s refined and idealised images had an enormous influence on portraits of the English aristocracy. This portrait reveals Gainsborough’s admiration of Van Dyck in the virtuoso representation of texture in the feathers and the satin, the elegantly tapered limbs and the pallor and slightly melancholy expression of the face.
Ask the class to look for artists they admire (either from this website or elsewhere). If they were artists, whose style would they imitate as Gainsborough imitated Van Dyck? Is it right to copy other people’s styles?

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was born in Suffolk, but trained in London where he met the leading craftsmen of the day, becoming aware of continental artistic trends without going abroad himself. Between 1748 and 1759 he set up a successful portrait practice in his native Suffolk, producing images of the local gentry. He also sketched and painted landscapes for his own amusement throughout his life; this interest can be seen most vividly in the backgrounds for some of his portraits.

In 1759 he moved to the fashionable spa of Bath and became an overnight success, enabling him to demand ever-higher prices for his works. He charged £20 for a quarter-length portrait, £40 for a half-length and £60 for a full-length.

Thomas Gainsborough, Master Nicholls (The Pink Boy), 1782
Materials and technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 167.6 x 116.8 cm
Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust): 2508
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