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English Painting Essay, Research Paper


Britain had one century of painting.

Elie Faure s statement summarizes best what critics, art researchers and collectors haven t had the space, the heart or the inspiration to say in their restless attempts to present English Art.

WHY? To answer this question we must take into account more than history and documents, we must evaluate the essence, the soul of the creator, of the English man.

Andrew Crawley describes in his book ( England ), the English people as being profoundly conservative.The English men feel, instinctively, that the present is not only the creation of the contemporaries, but also the result of the work of many past generations. For them, everything is related to the past, which, thus, becomes the origin of the present. The English man s being conservative is only a habit, derived from his deep understanding of reality. His practical sense, which has been widely acknowledged, must be attributed to this perception he has on reality. This leads to his native ability of adapting and assimilating the new . The English man is closely related to history and he permanently gains practical advice from it.

This kind of peaceful bonding between a people and its history, during these stormy centuries of fight and rebellion (the XVIIIth and the XIXth centuries), which singles out the British people from the other European nations, creates an equilibrium which is incompatible with such artistic manifestations as painting. The practical Puritan spirit refuse painting and, when it finally emerges this mentality makes it lose her way. The English soul subordinates the highest aspirations to material necessities. It extends over the Universe the power of reason; Bacon gives an immediate and practical purpose to knowledge; the merchants organize their own materialistic Republic; the Round Heads impose on the Republic their own strict rules. In this world there is no place for painting; the imaginary world of Shakespeare is enough to satisfy and relax its entire soul.

It is not until Charles II brings about from France a new less strict moral code of values, a new kind of literature, a new type of politics, that painting could assert itself as one of the mechanisms of the new system, but long before it could be acknowledged as a basic need of the English soul.

The Hierarchy of Categories in Painting in 1714-1768

The changes underwent by this hierarchy in this period were undoubtedly the ones that allowed the creation of the Royal Academy of London in 1768. This secured the official theoretical background absolutely necessary for the future development of painting in Britain.

We are now arrived at the period in which the arts were sunk to the lowest ebb in Britain , with this memorable statement Walpole opened his account of the painters in the reign of George I. The continued ascendancy of the portrait painters who were the favourites of Queen Anne and her Court, the withdrawal of the Venetian history painters, and the extravagant praise bestowed by national prejudice on Charles Jervas and William Kent in the uncritical search for an English Raphael seem to support the general charge against Georgian painting on the first half of the XVIIIth century. But Walpole s verdict was coloured by his dislike of the latest phase of the English baroque. At least a few of the finest portraits were painted after the accession of George I, and the same may be said of Michael Dahl. For the first time in the history of English art a native-born painter, Sir James Thornhill, was almost wholly occupied with history painting comparable for splendour of architectural setting and thematic grandeur with the undertakings of the Old Masters. The minor categories were enriched by immigrant artists that excelled in f tes champ tres , informal portraiture animal and flower painting and still life. The first Academies of Painting were launched to train a native school of history painters. Finally there was a remarkable growth of aesthetic criticism, particularly in the branch addressed to conoisseurs and artists, and this was to have a profound influence on taste and the practice of painters. What Walpole mistook for an ebb-tide was an incoming one.

According to a tradition inherited from the Italian Renaissance, the highest of all categories of painting was istoria , the term originally used for narrative pictures of state, for which the Bible and the classical mythology provided the ideal repertory of subjects. Work in the other categories was esteemed in proportion to its aproximation by sacred and classical association and by greatness of style . The landscapes of Poussin and Claude told the stories of the Bible and antiquity, the portraits of Rubens introduced their allegories. The hand of Hondecoeter could transform a barnyard fight between poultry into a battle piece, not without humour but unmistakably in great style. Topography itself could be dressed in trimmings of classical landscape. Only one category was excluded from this sliding scale: low-life genre. Such paintings were admired for their skill, ingenuity, and humour, but never confused with high art.

One of the most important changes to be noted in this period is the rise of subordinate categories of painting in estimation. With one exception, the decisive factor is rather a shift in taste than a revolution in doctrine. The exception is portraiture, which was elevated by theoretical argument based on other grounds than allegorical association. The writings of Jonathan Richardson provides the best guide for understanding this theoretical change.

Most of Richardson s values can be traced back both directly and through seventeenth century French sources to the Renaissance trilogy of grazia, grandezza, and decoro. Each of these terms and their derivatives, however, undergo a sea-change . Whenever he pairs grace and greatness he puts grace in the key position. Elegance and genteel add to the polite associations of grace . The Renaissance ideal with its associations with decoro had conferred a graceful dignity to portrait painting. But this was not what Richardson intended to emphasize in his general argument. His basic approach was moral.

One of the first English writers to make a substantial contribution to the debate on the moral function of the portrait was William Aglionby. He outlined its high aim of transmitting to posterity the virtues of the great and listed as examples the majesty of Alexander, the genius of Caesar, the calm magnanimity of Scipio, and the beauty, itself having a moral value, of Cleopatra.

According to Richardson, history painting records the great actions of the past, portraiture the men who conceived and executed them. He does not claim equality in so many words, but the impression he leaves is that the portraits of a great master come close to the highest position reserved to Biblical subjects.

An account of changes in the categories of painting in this period can follow the Orthodox sequence with one alteration, the raising of portraiture to the second place and the consequential relegation of landscape to third. This is justifiable both by the theories of Richardson and Aglionby and so is the failure of any English painter to catch the spirit as distinct from the manner of classical landscape before Richard Wilson. After the landscape comes animal painting, still life with its studio associations and at the very bottom low-life genre, doubly low because it was neither ideal in style nor elevated in subject. Dryden in his Parallel had left his readers in no doubt about the top and bottom of the scale. The subject of a picture, or of a poem must in general be great and noble . And this conception derives from the social reality of the moment: painting is created by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy; painting doesn t need to submit to the nobles whims, it already belongs to them, it wouldn t exist outside their particular circle.

Fortunately, George Vertue in a reliable and, in the circumstances of contemporary partisanship, extraordinarily impartial commentary on contemporary art generally specified the category to which paintings belonged in a discussion of their merits and defects, and his remarks may appropriately introduce an account of the new developments in each.

Vertue records the sequence of major events in history painting from shortly before 1713 and until1754 as follows: the invasion and domination of the Venetians, the rise of Thornhill, the consequent withdrawal of the Venetians, Burlington s promotion of William Kent over Thornhill and other rivals, the decline of patronage for high art, executed by living artists. He repeatedly complains about the patrons which prefer to have their portraits painted rather than comission decorative paintings with Biblical or classical subjects. In placing the blame on patrons for their indifference or neglect he made it clear that in his own opinion there was no lack of available talent. He hands out the title of history painter to a surprisingly large number of artists whose gifts for invention can today be best judged by book illustration, the underground channel by which traditions of istoria were kept alive in England at this period.

With the decline of history painting, the prestige and practice of the great style passed by default into the category of portraiture, for the landscape painters were not in the running to support it. In tracing the parallel evolution of the elevated and human portrait it is necessary to avoid the facile conclusion that the first Georgians preached a doctrine of fine art that they could not practise. The two modes are interconnected. In other words they made out of the ideal of informality an aristocratic one. Informality, what Vertue called a natural, easy style , is elevated by grazia and decoro . Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) presents, in 1746, to the Foundling Hospital a portrait of his architect, Theodore Jacobsen that throws an interesting light on the transformation of the great style into an informal one. The pose clearly derives from the Craggs Monument in Westminster Abbey by Giovanni Baptista Guelfi. Its main source is the Photos or Longing Statue in the Conservatori Museum, an obvious model in the Classical Antiquity for a funerary monument. But Guelfi made use of another famous masterpiece on the Capitol, the marble Satyr attributed to Praxitele, with its torso leaning on a pedestal and one arm akimbo. It was the Photos arrangement of the legs, however, that captured the imagination of the Georgians. They are ellegantly crossed,with the bent one resting on its toes. What had originally been noted and used in an elegiac context now became the symbol of well-bred negligence. Whereas Craggs is clothed in a classical drapery, Jacobsen is dressed like a gentleman of fashion and looks alertly at the spectator. Thereafter every major fashionable portrait painter of the age took up the pose, while some, like Gainsborough and Reynolds used it repeatedly.

At the end of October 1737, Vertue made his longest entry on the most informal of all the new modes of portraiture, the conversation piece, which had come into fashion towards the end of the 1720s. He related the category to its sources by referring to conversations done over one hundred years before, by Teniers, Brower, Breugil, Watteau and some Flemish disciples of Rubens and Vandyke. He described the conversations of Gavin Hamilton as follows:

pieces of Conversations, family pieces, small figures from the life in their habits and dress of the Times. Well-disposed, graceful and natural easy actions suteable to the characters of the persons and their portraitures well toucht to the likeness and Air, a free pencil, good Colouring and ornamented and decorated in a handsom grand manner every way suteable to people of distinction.

The term conversation piece derives from conversatione in the sense of a party or recreational gathering of persons who are socially connected. The conversation piece may be defined as an informal portrait group in a familiar, private and proprietary setting, with an emphasis on recreation, a precise attention to costume and accessories, and frequently a bit of playful invention. Hogarth almost invariably introduces conceited, pleasant Francies , whereas others, like Arthur Devis, rarely did. The distinguishing feature of the English category is the stress on proprietary. The lady gives a tea party in her parlour, the sea captain a drinking party in his cabin, the nobleman arranges a fishing party in his park, the club of artists and musicians meet in their reserved room in the frequented tavern. In many cases the party is simply a family one, with chaplain, tutor or governess, and perhaps a close relation or intimate family friend. Familiarity among the members of the group is essential, and if possible the place should be familiar as well, in a category that constitutes the supreme visual expression of the cult of informality and recreation among the upper classes in eighteenth-century England.

Bartholomew Dandrige (1691-1754), Joseph Highmore (1692-1780), William Hogarth (1697-1764), Gavin Hamilton (1698-1737), Francis Hayman (1708-1776) and Arthur Devis (1711-1787) were the leading native artists to take up the conversation piece in its formative stage. Dandrige is the most purely rococo; Hamilton tends to follow the realistic lead of Hogarth, who, after 1732 rarely uses in his conversations imaginary baroque accessories.

Gavin Hamilton s A Conversation of Virtuosi is a notable example of the serious type. As befits a circle of conoisseurs, the scene is framed by imaginary drapery at one side, and the group is posed as a tableau. The group of Virtuosis shows, from left to right: Vertue, the engraver and antiquary; Huysing and Dahl, the Old Masters of portraiture; William Thomas, Gentleman and conoisseur; James Gibbs, the architect; Matthew Robinson, gentleman and amateur painter; immediately above him, Joseph Goupy, history painter and later art adviser to Frederick, Prince of Wales; Charles Bridgeman, principal gardener to George I; Bernard Baron, reproductive engraver; Wootton, the landscape painter; Rysbrack, the favourit sculptor of the Burlington circle; Gavin Hamilton and William Kent. The artist has shown the most subtle attention to personal relationships and professional importance. Gibbs looks towards Vertue and next to Huysing is Dahl, whose widow s will he later witnessed. All four in this group within a group were Roman Catholics. Wootton and Rysbrack figure in the same set as Kent, who imitated landscape painting in his gardens and collaborated with the sculptor.

The last group in Hamilton s painting appropriately introduces the third category of landscape painting, for Wootton is linked with Bridgeman, the painter with the gardener, by Baron who engraved the former s work. I confine the sublime , wrote Richardson, to history and portrait painting . The struggle to elevate landscape painting was handicapped in England by its associations with Dutch realism and proprietary topography. Even if Vertue s hasardous associations of Dahl and Titian, Strester and Michelangelo, Charles Jervas and Raphael do more credit to the optimism than to the judgement of the age, Walpole is more discerning. He shows how taking after Continental artists determines the development of the English ones. Our painters , he wrote, draw rocks and precipes and castellated mountains, because Vergil gasped for breath at Naples, and Salvator wandered amidst Alps and Apennines. After noting a resemblance between Lambert and Salvator Rosa he sensibly came down on the side of his faithful and unpretentious renderings of English rural scenes. Regardless of the painters and their attempts to align themselves to the Continentals, the one element that marks profoundly this period is the oscillation of landscape between the ideal and the topographical.

The Jan Wyck-Siberechts tradition continued to flourish in topographical painting. The formula of a wide panoramic view, with or without trees en coulisse , and the horizon at the level of a prospect piece taken from a hill vied in popularity with the bird s eye view favoured by Knyff, in which less sky is shown. In the first half of the century panoramas of famous or frequented excursion scenes were already in considerable demand. The main outlines of British topographical painting from Hollar and Hendrick Dankerts to Peter de Wint and Turner could be traced in an exhibition of paintings of two of the most famous prospects of the environs of London, those from Greenwich Hill and Richmond Hill.

Animal painting of the type that Reynolds later associated with minute attention to fur and feathers in still life and genre remained during this period largely the province of foreigners, although it is said that Charles Collins deserves honourable mention.

The foreign practitioners of genre showed greater capacity to assimilate from their environment than the bird and flower painters, whose subjects were broadly the same in all countries that collected specimens from overseas. A Covent Garden Group in low-life genre takes its place alongside the Thames Estuary School. Among the immigrants who painted Covent Garden scenes were Joseph Van Aken, Balthasar Nebot, Peter Angellis and Francis Paul Ferg. Vertue s vocabulary in recording the works of the Covent garden Group include the following epithets and nouns: natural , curious , nicety , exactness and skillfulness . His term for painters of this class is the lower rank of Virtuosi . In admitting them to the class of the Virtuosi, although in a lower rank, and by his unstinted admiration of their work, Vertue shows that he is both progressive and liberal in his sympathies. His enthusiasm for the contemporary art of his own country was uncritical, but the change that he noted taking place during his lifetime were to have vital consequences.

Vertue deserves credit for his acumen in detecting and describing so precisely the really significant innovations, and the extraordinary merit of his contemporaries is that they laid the foundations for the greater achievements of the next generation. They had challenged by example, if not by doctrine, the hierarchy of categories, so that when a Royal Academy committed to its restoration was founded the vitality of art was free to flow in other channels than the immitation of the Old Masters.

The Classical Age of British Painting: Reynolds, Gainsborough and Wilson

At the time of George III s accession to the throne of England, three artists who, together, inaugurate what has been entitled the Classical Age of Painting in Britain had reached maturity: in order of birth, Wilson, Reynolds and Gainsborough. It was the joint achievement of these painters to elevate both portraiture and landscape by assimilating the great style of the Old Masters to the native tradition. The older generation of Hogarth had humanized the English portrait and introduced a new vitality into landscape by its cult of plein-air naturalism. The three younger men built on these foundations by a pursuit of elevation which led two of them to study antiquity and the Old Masters in Rome with a discernment unmatched by their seniors and contemporaries. Reynolds returned from his Grand tour of Europe towards the end of 1752, Wilson probably in 1759. Certainly after his move to Bath, in 1759, and probably before, Gainsborough discovered his artistic hero in Van Dyck, his substitute for the Grand Tour and intermediary with the Old Masters tradition. He divides the honours of the elevation of English portraiture with Reynolds, those of English landscape with Wilson. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 the three stood head and shoulders over both the older men and their contemporaries who were appointed Foundation Members, for Allan Ramsay by this date was producing little besides copies of his Royal portraits and neither joined nor exhibited. The situation was very different at the time of their deaths, when they were surrounded by a galaxy of talent.

In painting portraits , wrote Edmund Burke in his obituary of Reynolds, he appeared not to be raised upon that platform, but to descend to it from a higher sphere . This sums up in a nutshell the effect of his studies in Italy. The higher sphere from which he descended was the ideal world of antiquity and of the Renaissance, the platform on which he took his stand the portraiture of the society. Reynolds chose for himself a composite style: a mixture between the great and the ornamental styles. He was aware of the difficulty of his task. As he confessed, the great style could not happily be blended with the ornamental , nor the dignity of Raphael with the glow and bustle of a Paulo, or Tintoret . To justify his own course of associating the ornamental with the great, he drew a distinction between heightening the elegant and degrading the sublime: it happens in a few instances that the lower may be improved by borrowing from the grand . When the union is accomplished in a high degree, portraiture becomes in some sort a rival to that style which we have fixed as the highest .

The main groupings of Reynold s portraiture are: naval and military heroes; civil worthies; actors and actresses; and children in fanciful roles. To a special class belong his portraits of those men of genius with whom he was personally intimate, and of whose characters he made written assessments. To cover adequately the range of his art we must add to the list his fancy pictures and history paintings as well as his short excursion into caricature.

By the circumstances of his Devonian connection he had life-long contacts with naval men, whose portraits commence and continue the long line of heroicized likeness. The two devices that he used most frequently for elevation were the attitude borrowed from the antiquity or the Old Masters and the emotive background. Both appear in his full-lenght of Captain the Hon. Augustus Keppel at Greenwich, the portrait which tended most to establish his reputation after his return from Italy.

The Apollo Belvedere pose, which he first used for a naval hero, was twice invoked to support a portrait from civil life. Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle in Garter Robes is the young and gracious oligarch who has thoghtfully assumed the mantle of his station in life against the background of Venetian splendour, relieved by the rococo humour of a pet dog barking in anticipation of a walk. Typically, the familiar was introduced. Omai complements the handsom, highly educated and gifted aristocrat as an alternative showpiece of the fashionable world. He is the noble savage whose example instructed society in natural virtue.

The leaders of the nation in war and peace were either members of the landowning class entitled to bear arms, or aspirants to it. By far the largest number of portraits by Reynolds depict members of this class which move in the two related worlds of London society and the country house. Reynolds frequently elevated his portraits of fashionable women by association with istoria , but his models were seldom taken out of the real world unless the ideal context could be supported by youth or beauty.

The small group of portraits of men of genius with whom he was intimate is unique in the history of European portraiture in that they correspond to the judgements he passed in writing his character sketches.

The history paintings of Reynolds were nearly all created late in his career, after the second visit to Flanders and Holland when he fell more deeply under the spell of Rubens. They also suggest the influence of Fuselli, but not his neo-classical manner. In fact Reynolds painted remarkably few pictures in the linear bas-relief style, perhaps the closest approximation to avant-garde neo-classicism being the portrait of the Hon. Mrs. Edward Bouverie and Her Son Edward . The renewed contact with Rubens liberated his brush, so that from a purely painterly point of view the last decade of his life was one of the richest.

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