Thomas Gainsborough (British, Sudbury 1727–1788 London)
Oil on canvas
59 1/4 x 47 1/2 in. (150.5 x 120.7 cm)
Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889
Not on view
The canvas had as its pendant a painting of two children, one seated and one standing, warming themselves before a cottage fire. The latter has disappeared but its composition is known from an 1809 mezzotint engraving. The pair formed part of a group of rustic paintings of working-class children much admired in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as "fancy pictures." Jack Hill, shown here, was a professional beggar whom Gainsborough took into his house as a model.
This work and its pendant, A Boy at a Cottage Fire and a Girl Eating Milk, were both in Gainsborough’s studio at his death in the summer of 1788 and remained together until after the Knighton sale of 1885, when the companion piece disappeared. According to William Whitley (1915), Gainsborough was working on A Boy at a Cottage Fire in December 1787, and the principal figure in both pictures was “the Richmond child, Jack Hill, whom Gainsborough painted several times, and whom his daughter is said to have wished to adopt." Jack Hill also appears in Gainsborough's Cottage Children in the Museum's collection (50.145.17).
Gainsborough's "fancy pieces", as pictures such as this were known, although not commissioned, were offered for prices higher than portraits. In Gainsborough’s time, a critic described A Boy with a Cat as “a natural representation, and a picture that will live for ever as a chaste and beautiful effort of the art” (Whitley 1915). Its reputation has suffered since, and with other fancy pictures it has been a source of confusion and disagreement among modern-day writers. Certainly its condition is problematic. By 1913, the picture was being treated rather dismissively by the Museum, which called it Girl with a Cat and reattributed it to Gainsborough's nephew Gainsborough Dupont (1754–1797).
Smaller replicas of both this work and its pendant (locations unknown), probably by Gainsborough Dupont, were recorded by George Fulcher in 1856. Charles Turner engraved both works in mezzotint in 1809 as The Little Cottager and Interior of a Cottage. In 1877, J. Scott made engravings after those of Turner, calling them Autumn and Winter.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
the artist, Thomas Gainsborough, Schomberg House, London (until d. 1788; his estate, 1788–at least 1789; his estate sale, Schomberg House, March 30–May 31, 1789, no. 51, as "A Boy with a Cat—Morning," for 250 gns., unsold); Richard Brinsley Sheridan, London (by 1813–at least 1814; [his] sale, Peter Coxe, London, October 6, 1813, no. 1, as "The Girl and Cat, in a landscape," bought in); Alexander Copland (until 1836; posthumous sale, Christie's, London, March 12, 1836, no. 45, as "A peasant child with a cat, in a landscape," for £136.10.0 to Seguier); [William Seguier, London, from 1836]; Sir William W. Knighton, 2nd Baronet, Blendworth Lodge, Hampshire (by 1845–d. 1885; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 23, 1885, no. 460, as "A Child with a Cat: evening," for £320.5.0 to Colnaghi); [Colnaghi, London, from 1885]; Sir Francis Bolton (until d. 1887; his estate, 1887–88; sold privately for £2,000 to Marquand); Henry G. Marquand, New York (1888–89)
London. British Institution. "Gainsborough," 1814, no. 62 (as "A Cottage Girl," lent by R. B. Sheridan).
London. British Institution. "[no title]," June 1845, no. 108 (as "Cottage Child," lent by Sir W. W. Knighton).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," 1883, no. 212 (as "Child with a Cat: Evening," lent by Sir W. W. Knighton, Bt.).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Exhibition of 1888–89," 1888–89, no. 11 (as "Young Girl with Cat").
Columbus, Ga. Columbus Museum of Arts and Crafts. "A Centenary of a Great Museum: Old Master Paintings," November 1, 1969–October 31, 1970, unnum. checklist.
Ferrara. Palazzo dei Diamanti. "Thomas Gainsborough," June 7–August 30, 1998, no. 52 (as "Ragazzo con gatto - Mattino").
George Williams Fulcher. Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. London, 1856, pp. 193, 200, 207, 232, lists "A Boy with a cat—morning" and "A Boy at a cottage fire, and a girl eating milk" among paintings in Gainsborough's studio on March 30, 1789.
Engravings from the Works of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. by J. Scott, G. H. Every, G. Sanders, and Other Eminent Engravers. London, n.d. [ca. 1880], unpaginated, no. 110, ill., publishes an engraving after the painting titled "Autumn," by J. Scott, dated 1877, "[f]rom the Scarce Engraving by C. Turner".
Henry Percy Horne. An Illustrated Catalogue of Engraved Portraits and Fancy Subjects Painted by Thomas Gainsborough, R.A., Published between 1760 and 1820, and by George Romney, Published between 1770 and 1830, with the Variations of the State of the Plates. London, 1891, p. 27, no. 82, records the engraving after the painting by Charles Turner, which was titled "The Little Cottager" and published in 1809.
Mrs. Arthur Bell (N. D'Anvers). Thomas Gainsborough: A Record of His Life and Works. London, 1897, ill. opp. p. 138 (Turner engraving).
Walter Armstrong. Gainsborough & His Place in English Art. London, 1898, p. 209 [popular ed., New York, 1904, p. 291], as "Child (Jack Hill) with a Cat".
Masters in Art: Gainsborough 2 (1901), p. 39.
Gustav Pauli. Gainsborough. Bielefeld, 1904, p. 103, fig. 55 (Turner mezzotint), as Jack Hill with his cat, one of the paintings in which the boy played the principal role.
P[ercy]. M[oore]. Turner. "Pictures of the English School in New York." Burlington Magazine 22 (February 1913), p. 269, as "Girl with a Cat . . . an obvious work by Gainsborough Dupont, to whom it is now rightly given in the label attached . . . ".
William T[homas]. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. New York, 1915, pp. 293, 322, 324, 329, notes that the companion piece, which he calls "Jack Hill in his Cottage," was begun in December 1787 just after Gainsborough completed Lord Porchester's picture (MMA 50.145.17); that both were in the artist's studio at the time of his death and, although highly regarded, neither found a buyer at the 1788 estate sale; mentions small versions exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883.
C. H. Collins Baker. British Painting. London, 1933, p. 279, as "Peasant Child and Cat," by Gainsborough with Gainsborough Dupont.
Chauncey Brewster Tinker. Painter and Poet: Studies in the Literary Relations of English Painting, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1937–1938. Cambridge, Mass., 1938, p. 90, mentions that the painting has darkened and is seldom shown.
Tancred Borenius. "Editorial: Gainsborough's Collection of Pictures." Burlington Magazine 84 (May 1944), p. 109.
Ellis K. Waterhouse. "Gainsborough's 'Fancy Pictures'." Burlington Magazine 88 (June 1946), p. 140, no. 13, pl. IIA, proposes that the lower price by comparison with the companion piece [no. 12] at the estate sale suggests that the present picture may have been unfinished; points out that the two were probably acquired by Sheridan, as he lent this one to the British Institution in 1814, and the pair was valued for him by Rising in that same year at 300 guineas.
Ellis Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, p. 104, no. 809, pl. 282, the painting and its companion piece both painted at the close of 1787; the MMA picture "[n]ow a ruin".
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 74 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Adrian Le Harivel, Rosemarie Mulcahy, and Homan Potterton. The Beit Collection. Dublin, 1988, p. 12, mention it in their discussion of the role of Jack Hill as Gainsborough's model.
Thomas Gainsborough. Ed. John Hayes. Exh. cat., Palazzo dei Diamanti. Ferrara, 1998, pp. 60, 166–67, no. 52, ill. (color), observes that Bate Dudley wrote of it in the Morning Herald shortly after it was painted; describes the social conditions that gave rise to the appearance in London of such models.
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 112–14, no. 50, ill. (color).
Gainsborough and the Landscape of Refinement. Exh. cat., Lowell Libson Ltd at Mitchell-Inness & Nash, New York. London, 2014, pp. 60, 62, ill. (color), under no. 12, catalogues a study for the figure of the boy that includes a suggestion of the cat at lower left (pencil, 8 7/8 x 6 1/16 in., about 1786–87).