Gainsborough painted Amherst about two decades after Reynolds did. Yet only a curve of the brow and bend in the nose indicate that the two portraits depict the same man. The sitter appears more than aged; he looks transformed. Gainsborough’s characteristically animated brushwork minimizes the mole on Amherst’s cheek and lingers instead on other elements: the ordered lines of the powdered wig and the star of the Order of the Bath, the swinging epaulets, the white shirt visible beneath the general’s red coat, and the black hat tucked under the sitter’s arm. The background is deceptively simple, its brown tones lightening and darkening in masterful contrast to the shaded and illuminated areas of the face.
Whereas Reynolds’s portrait presented Amherst as a public figure, Gainsborough depicts the private, taciturn man, remembered by Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in 1815 as “tall and thin, of an adust habit, with an aquiline nose and an intelligent countenance,” whose “manners were grave, formal and cold.” Not surprisingly, given its intimate nature, the Mead’s portrait descended in Amherst’s family. The sitter bequeathed a replica (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London) to his private secretary, Arthur Mair.
At the time he sat to Gainsborough, Amherst’s most important accomplishments were behind him. Gainsborough, too, had reached a turning point: having broken with the Royal Academy in 1784, he would spend more time during the final years of his life painting for pleasure, perfecting the seemingly effortless balance of tone that distinguishes the present canvas.
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