Fancy pictures

Fancies was a term coined in 1737 by the art critic and historian George Vertue to describe genre scenes that also incorporated invented or imagined elements, or a storyline.

Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depict scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling

The term ‘fancies’ was first used in 1737 by art chronicler George Vertue to describe paintings by Philip Mercier. Typical titles were Venetian Girl at a Window or series The Five Senses. The paintings were popularised through engraved copies.

The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular.

Philippe Mercier
Philippe Mercier (1689 in Berlin – 18 July 1760 in London) was a French painter and etcher, who lived principally and was active in England.

He was appointed principal painter and librarian to the Prince and Princess of Wales at their independent establishment in Leicester Fields, and while he was in favour he painted various portraits of royalty, and no doubt many of the nobility and gentry. Of the royal portraits, those of the Prince of Wales and of his three sisters, painted in 1728, were all engraved in mezzotint by Jean Pierre Simon, and that of the three elder children of the Prince of Wales by John Faber Junior in 1744. This last (entitled Playing Soldiers) was a typical piece of Mercier’s composition, the children being made the subject of a spirited, if somewhat childish, allegory in their game of play. Prince George is represented with a firelock on his shoulder, teaching a dog his drill, while his little brother and sister are equally occupied in a scene that is aptly used to point a patriotic moral embodied in some verses subjoined to the plate.

Thomas Gainsborough
Thomas Gainsborough FRSA (14 May 1727 (baptised) – 2 August 1788) was an English portrait and landscape painter, draughtsman, and printmaker. He surpassed his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds to become the dominant British portraitist of the second half of the 18th century. He painted quickly, and the works of his maturity are characterised by a light palette and easy strokes. He preferred landscapes to portraits, and is credited (with Richard Wilson) as the originator of the 18th-century British landscape school. Gainsborough was a founding member of the Royal Academy.

The art historian Michael Rosenthal described Gainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time”. He was noted for the speed with which he applied paint, and he worked more from observations of nature (and of human nature) than from application of formal academic rules.

Gainsborough’s enthusiasm for landscapes is shown in the way he merged figures of the portraits with the scenes behind them. His landscapes were often painted at night by candlelight, using a tabletop arrangement of stones, pieces of mirrors, broccoli, and the like as a model. His later work was characterised by a light palette and easy, economical strokes.

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