OIL PAINTING: The Mall in St. James's Park, 1783
Gainsborough's contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), isn't nearly as painterly; for example, see Reynolds' General John Burgoyne (ca. 1766), yet another painting at The Frick. And even just a few years before The Mall in St James's Park, in 1777, Gainsborough painted The Hon. Frances Duncombe (yet another from the Frick collection); the dress that the figure is wearing is painted with a much greater degree of resolution and finish than anything in The Mall in St James's Park. Of course, The Hon. Frances Duncombe is a portrait, and so the painter is at the service of those expecting a likeness, patrons and viewers who also likely have expectations for greater finish and conventional beauty. The Mall in St James's Park is a scene which doesn't focus on the individual, and so Gainsborough may have been free to have other goals in mind.
So, it's astonishing to stand in the dining room at The Frick and look at The Mall in St James's Park as slowly and as long as one wishes, and to see a painting of this time in which the paint quality itself-- brushy, thin, fast, showing the painter's hand-- is essential to the atmosphere of the painting. It's tempting to bring Fragonard into the discussion, but even any Fragonard with which I'm familiar isn't as painterly as this Gainsborough. Rather than elaborately using paint to create the illusion of fluttery leaves and the light and air under the trees, it is Gainsborough's application of paint itself, and all the brush work he shows, that contributes so much to the painting's atmosphere. This is expressionism, and it's quite radical painting.