Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s “Cottage Door”

Taking as its focal point Thomas Gainsborough’s great landscape painting The Cottage Door, about 1780 (now in The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens), this exhibition brought together for the first time a group of paintings, prints, and drawings related to Gainsborough’s pictorial treatment of the cottage and cottage life. These works are some of the first by a British artist to embody the eighteenth-century ideal of sensibility, a movement that encouraged an emotional response to the artless beauty of nature and idealized the life of the rural peasantry. Together, Gainsborough’s scenes of cottage life form a vision of a rustic idyll that resonated powerfully with the metropolitan culture of late-eighteenth-century Britain and had an immediate impact on new modes of thinking about vision and visual perception.

The exhibition included modern recreations of models, viewing apparatuses, and period rooms that aimed to evoke for today’s viewers the ideas, objects, and practices that contributed to Gainsborough’s landscape vision and shaped his audiences’ emotional response to his works. The show featured a spectacular recreation of an eighteenth-century sound-and-light show, called an Eidophusikon, the original of which was created in 1781 by Gainsborough’s friend, the artist and theatrical designer Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg.

Equally exciting was the installation of The Cottage Door within a room specifically created to evoke the “Tent Room” of Sir John Leicester’s Hill Street Gallery, where the painting was displayed to great fanfare in 1818. This modern recreation—complete with fabric tenting, mirrors, and special lighting evoking the glow of oil lamps—allowed twenty-first-century visitors to experience how early viewers would have encountered Gainsborough’s painting.


Yale Center for British Art: October 6–December 31, 2005

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens:
February 11–May 14, 2006

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.


Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s “Cottage Door” was co-organized by the Center and The Huntington. It was curated by Ann Bermingham, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara; in collaboration with Julia Marciari Alexander, the Center’s Associate Director for Programmatic Affairs; and Shelley Bennett, Curator of British and European Art at The Huntington. It was generously supported by grants from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the David T. Langrock Foundation.

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Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s "Cottage Door" installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole

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Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s “Cottage Door”

Edited by Ann Bermingham

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