Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, in Suffolk. Although portraiture later became the main source of his fame and income, he was also one of the earliest native painters to produce serious landscapes showing English scenery. Many of Gainsborough's early works were based on the Suffolk countryside, characterised by its flatness, open fields, wooded copses and rutted roads, with which he was familiar. The landscape of Suffolk was also to be the inspiration for the painter John Constable (1776-1837) half a century later, who famously remarked, 'Tis a most delightfull country for a landscape painter. I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.'
In Gainsborough's early years in London in the 1740s, he seems to have been known primarily as a landscape painter and by 1748 his talent was already sufficiently noted for William Hogarth (1697-1762) to commission a small view of The Charterhouse from him for the Foundling Hospital (Thomas Coram Foundation, London).
Wooded Landscape is one of Gainsborough's landscapes, painted when he was about twenty years old, during his apprentice years in London. Although Gainsborough was absent from his native county (to which he returned the following year, in 1748), the painting is clearly a vision of the Suffolk landscape, with its open sky and woodland track. The brightly illuminated church tower in the background, glimpsed between the trees, could be in an actual village, although it has not been identified.
The view is not, however, intended to be strictly topographical but rather a poetic interpretation of the Suffolk scenery. It is typical of Gainsborough's early landscapes in its obvious debt to Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, especially Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-82) and Jan Wijnants (c.1625-84). The Dutch influence is apparent in the ordered composition and the detailed observation of nature, in particular the naturalistic treatment of the foliage, where Gainsborough has recorded an astonishing variety of different greens. The apparent naturalism of the composition is, in fact, highly contrived, with a central path between two balanced masses of trees leading the eye to the sunlit landscape beyond, a device clearly derived from Ruisdael.
Like many of Gainsborough's early works, the handling of Wooded Landscape is fresh and fluent, with a crisp touch that gives a lively sparkle to the canvas more akin to French Rococo painters, such as Antoine Watteau (1684-1727), than the earlier Dutch masters. The painting is innovative in fusing Dutch compositional devices and detailed observation with a French Rococo mood, alongside Gainsborough's wholly individual feeling for the light and atmosphere of the English countryside.
A mood of afternoon pastoral contentment is established by the reclining peasant, resting by the wayside under the shade of a tree. The figure is ultimately derived from Watteau, possibly absorbed via the work of the English painter, Francis Hayman (1708-76), with whom Gainsborough is known to have collaborated. It is a characteristic motif that Gainsborough used in many of his early landscapes, including Landscape with Figures under a Tree, c.1746 (Tate N01486).
E.K. Waterhouse, Gainsborough, London 1958, no. 853
John Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 2 vols 1982, no. 19
Young Gainsborough, exhibition National Gallery, London, 1997, no.25
Amal Asfour and Paul Williamson, Gainsborough's Vision, 1999, p.29, reproduced in colour pl. 11