It is undoubtedly true, though a phaenomenon of the human mind difficult to account for, that the representation of distress frequently gives pleasure.
J. and A.L. Aikin, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1773)

Gainsborough - Wooded Landscape with Family Grouped outside a Cottage Door (The Woodcutter's Return) 1772-3 Oil on canvas

Gainsborough
Wooded Landscape with Family Grouped outside a Cottage Door
(The Woodcutter’s Return) 1772-3
Oil on canvas

Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire

Gainsborough’s landscapes have often been seen as embodying timeless values, but his vision of rural life was complex. His pictures were not meant to be simply descriptive. Instead, the landscape paintings and drawings in this room were intended to please, to prompt serious reflection, and to demonstrate the artistic validity of everyday themes.

Scenes of charity, displaced rural workers and peasant cottages recur throughout Gainsborough’s landscapes. These can be related to contemporary debates about the changing agricultural economy. With common land being taken into private ownership, and the aggregation of small farms into big businesses, traditional ways of country life seemed to be disappearing. Gainsborough’s pictures suggests that he lamented these changes. He made rural themes the basis of a kind of art that had the emotional and formal aspirations traditionally reserved for sacred or historical subjects.