Portrayals of the Peasant Family in the 18th Century

Portrayals of the Peasant Family in the 18th Century

            The 18th century was the period when several gifted artists emerged from the art world - Portrayals of the Peasant Family in the 18th Century introduction. Two artists who have been considered as great masters in their own right during this period were Thomas Gainsborough and John Baptiste Le Prince. Gainsborough’s “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door” and Le Prince’s “The Russian Cradle” were the two artworks to have gained several accolades from critics because of their distinct representation of the peasant way of life in England and in Russia.

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Thomas Gainsborough was one of most renowned portraitist in 18th century England. He was rendered as the most sought after portraitist by English aristocrats because of his “elegant and flattering portrayals” (“ Thomas Gainsborough”). However, painting landscapes was Gainsborough’s first passion. His early years was strongly  influenced by “Dutch landscape painting” which led him to develop his love for rustic themes particularly the cottage lifestyle “in the English countryside.” This kind of lifestyle is characterized by the penniless lives of peasants who make the best out of life by taking refuge in their cottages (Glueck, 2005”). One of his works that incorporated this theme was featured in an oil painting canvas entitled, “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door” was finished around 1787 in London.

On the other hand, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince started his interest in painting when he immersed himself under the influence of a French painter named Francois Boucher. Boucher’s teachings helped Le Prince to develop the “tightly controlled brushworks, highly finished surfaces” and even the fondness for scenery with a shepherd or shepherdess. He traveled and lived in Russia for an extensive period of time. Because of this, most of his artworks are based on the way of life and the countryside of Russians. An evident sample of this is his art piece called “The Russian Cradle” that became very popular and even reproduced in prints, drawings and as a “decoration on Sèvres porcelain.” This oil painting was created between the years of 1764-1765 in Russia and was brought to Paris along with thirteen other paintings that were displayed in the Salon (“Jean-Baptiste Le Prince”).

            Gainsborough depicted the rural English peasant life by illustrating a domestic bliss  setting of a peasant and his family. The peasant was drawn carrying a jug while smoking his pipe and “his wife and three little children” were by his side (Glueck, 2005). Moreover, Le Prince also used a peasant family in a rural setting. However, the size of the family is bigger that included the father, mother, a baby, a lady and an old woman. Several farm animals were also included in the painting to show the source of livelihood of the family (“The Russian Cradle”). Another  common factor in the two paintings is the utilization of the peasant family as the focal point.  Though Gainsborough and Le Prince employed a similar theme, the paintings differed in brushworks, lighting, colors, composition and space that clearly set these two apart. In terms of brushwork, Le Prince applied defined brushworks that emphasized the minor details such as the folds of the clothes, rigidity of the trees and concrete wall and luscious fur of the animals. More so, the “highly finished surfaces” on the peasant family, the ornaments and background setting gave the painting an overall look of sharpness and liveliness (“Jean-Baptiste Le Prince”). Meanwhile, Gainsborough used feathery strokes to illustrate a sense of movement. As a result, the trees seemed like they were swaying adding to the softness on the textural quality of the painting. For the lighting, Le Prince created a blithesome portrayal. The bright illumination highlighted  the delicacy, lightness and the detailed ornamentations of the painting elements. For Gainsborough, he used the sunset light  to generate a dim or natural lighting to produce a dramatic effect (Glueck, 2005). Meanwhile, the choice of colors was clearly distinguishable in the two paintings. Le Prince used light but bold colors while Gainsborough used dark lavish colors. The bright colors emanated the feeling of happiness while the opposite exuded gloominess. Furthermore, the different treatments on colors also affected the space and the appearance of the paintings. In the “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door,” the dark colors together with the manipulation of light, accentuated the peasant family even though it was placed at the corner and was undersized. It achieved depth because of the contrast of light and dark colors particularly the burning yellow of the sun and the murky green and black leaves of the trees. On the other hand, “The Russian Cradle,” despite the large scale figures and the presence of many elements, appeared spacious because of the combination of bright lighting and bold light colors. However, the downside is that the general look of the painting seemed flat.

            Overall, Gainsborough’s “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door” and Le Prince’s “The Russian Cradle” were obvious examples of the Rococo style of art that showcased elegance in movement and whimsical visions. But their intentions for using the peasant life as their subject are dissimilar.  For Gainsborough, landscape painting was a means of escaping his status as a famous portraitist and his rendition of the peasant life was a way to retire from a world that was filled with expectations and conventions of “public and social life” (Barell 210-213). Meanwhile, Le Prince’s reasons for painting Russian peasants are first, he fell in love with people and culture of Russia and second, he wanted to educate his fellow Parisians about the social condition in other countries.


Barell, John. (2006). The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glueck, Grace. (2005, November 04). Blue Boy for a Living: Landscapes for Pleasure. New York Times.

The J. Paul Getty Trust. Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. Retrieved May 5, 2008, from http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=701

The J. Paul Getty Trust. The Russian Cradle. Retrieved May 6, 2008, from http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=699

The J. Paul Getty. Thomas Gainsborough. Retrieved May 5, 2008, from http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=577


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