Sunset: Carthorses Drinking at a Stream is one of several paintings by Gainsborough on the theme of peasants going to or from market. The family here are travelling home in a country wagon and are shown in a moment of repose after the labours of the day; the drover on the footbridge halts by a stream to allow the horses to quench their thirst. The landscape is bathed in a warm, golden light and the glowing sunset adds a suitable poetic note to the tranquil scene.
Gainsborough's move from his native Suffolk to the fashionable spa town of Bath in 1759 coincided with a change of style in his painting. Whereas the influence of the Dutch manner is apparent in his earlier landscapes, with their close observation of nature and ordered compositions, those painted in Bath, and subsequently in London, became more pastoral and poetic.
Sunset: Carthorses Drinking at a Stream is typical of Gainsborough's Bath period landscapes with its schematic, less representational composition. The Dutch influence has been replaced by the freer, more dramatic and imaginative style of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), apparent in a broader handling of paint and richer colouring. In addition to the more Flemish approach to landscape, Gainsborough has also borrowed something of the structure and poetry of Claude Lorraine (1600-82), at the time regarded as one of the greatest Old Masters of landscape painting.
The artifice or contrived nature of the composition is most apparent in its curving, almost circular design, created by the sweeping arch of the pollarded tree on the right and the downward movement of the wagon and horses towards the stream. This pronounced circular structure gives a 'peephole' effect to the composition, which offers the viewer an intimate glimpse of an enclosed and idyllic world.
Gainsborough's change in style, following his move to Bath, was probably a response to the sophisticated tastes of his new patrons there. It was also possibly aided by his seeing works by Claude and Rubens and other Old Masters in some of the nearby art collections, such as those at Wilton and Stourhead. His tendency, once in Bath, to produce nostalgic rural idylls may also have been an escape from the demands of urban life and from his flourishing but wearisome portrait practice.
During this period of Gainsborough's career, he remained fascinated by landscape and made frequent sketching excursions into the surrounding countryside. However, there is something of a duality in Gainsborough's practice as a landscape painter. Although he was an avid sketcher from nature, it is reported that around this time he built model landscapes in his studio, consisting of coal, clay or sand with pieces of mirror for lakes and sprigs of broccoli to represent trees, in order to help him construct his compositions.
These artificial models, created by the dim light of a candle, were used as a basis for his finished paintings - entirely imaginary landscape compositions, such as this.
E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, London 1958, no. 897, reproduced pl.65
John Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols, London, 1982, no. 75
Amal Asfour and Paul Williamson, Gainsborough's Vision, Liverpool, 1999, p.163, reproduced in colour pl. 91