Thomas Gainsborough painted a number of portraits of military men, many of them depicted full-length, standing in a landscape. A strong link can be suggested between this picture and a portrait of Colonel John Bullock that dates from the early 1770s (private collection). Although shown leaning on a pedestal, Bullock has almost exactly the same pose as Gainsborough’s young officer. The artist in fact seems to have liked this cross-legged pose, and in this portrait it contributes to the general air of pensiveness. The officer looks past the viewer as if deep in thought, his demeanour suggesting that he is engaged in serious contemplation of his situation – a situation that is more fully explained by the landscape, which takes on a greater role than that of mere decorative background.
The according of a significant role to the landscape merits special attention in a discussion of Gainsborough’s work, as he was among the few major British portrait artists of his period who painted their own backgrounds. The man-of-war vessel in the distance, together with the musket and bayonet, would seem to indicate that the young man has either recently been engaged in active warfare or is about to go to war.
Gainsborough has used the form of the dog to balance the dark rocks, and the dominant figure of the officer, with the much lighter seascape and ship at the left of the painting. The animal’s solid triangular shape gives the composition stability by continuing the diagonal created by the officer’s right arm, and thus effectively dividing the image into two balanced areas.
Gainsborough painted this portrait in the period following his return to London after having resided and worked in Bath for fifteen years. It is a measure of his confidence at this time that in the Melbourne painting he successfully combines the beautifully detailed features of the officer, and a careful portrayal of his uniform, with a looser handling of aspects of the surroundings.
Text by Dr Jennifer Jones-O’Neill from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 121.