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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.
Edmund Burke did not apply his analytical gifts to an obituary of Gainsborough, but when he stated that the portraits of Reynolds remind the spectator of the invention of history, and the amenity of landscape , he hit upon two phrases which serve conveniently to distinguish between the two, for it was Reynolds who preeminently related portraiture to history, while Gainsborough did so to landscape.
No painter of the century before Turner was more precocious. At the age of 21 he was so much admired as a landscape painter that he received a high professional honour. He was one of the artists chosen to present a picture of a London hospital for the series decorating the Court Room of the Foundling Hospital. His subject was The Charterhouse and he handled it better than any of his seniors: Samuel Wale, Edward Haytley or Richard Wilson. There can be little doubt that he learned the secrets of Dutch painting by copying and restoring originals. The list of Dutch painters with whom writers on Gainsborough have detected resemblances includes Ruisdael, Hobbema, Du Jardin, Van der Heyden, Berchem, Cuyp, Paul Potter and Teniers. In the majority of cases references are to some correspondence of handling or technical effect, although the compositional resemblances are also numerous.
All Gainsborough s landscapes including the earliest that are known, showed that he owed as much to the observation of nature as he did to the imitation of art. From Hayman the scene painter and from Gravelot the rococo decorator he learned how to approach pictorial composition on altogether different principles from those of the Dutch. There is a doll-like quality in some of his small full-length portraits which recalls the practice of Gravelot in using dressed-up dolls for his drawing lessons. during this formative period he also modelled figures of cows, horses and dogs . Stage scenery, artificial lighting, models and mock-ups were henceforth a recurrent source of pictorial inspiration, so that at the outset of his career the ground was prepared for his development on two lines, the first realist and the second decorative.
Portraits which combined the charmes of the conversation piece with those of landscape made a strong appeal to the country gentry. Gainsborough s attack on high society was a flank one. His subjects possessed the grace and elegance more frequently found in cottages than in Courts. Matthew Pillkington describes him as follows: His genius, taste and abilities qualified him to execute subjects of history with general applause; yet, his favourit subjects were the rural ones, as large as life, in different attitudes and amusements.
Chauncey Brewster Tinker noted a number of parallels between the fancy pictures of Gainsborough and early romantic poets like Thomson, Gray, Burns and the young Wordsworth . His affinity with Gray has been precisely described by Lord Clark:
The picture of rustic life in Gray s Elegy… is the result of sincere contemplation by a mind so elegant and discriminating that natural roughnesses are hardly perceived. Exactly the same is true of Gainsborough… For him the village children who run to lisp their sire s return, or climb his knees the envied kiss to share arranged themselves in groups as elegant as Gray s diction; and when he sat down to draw cows, his pencil instinctively traced a visual equivalent to the lowing herd winds slowly o er the lea … To read the Elegy in front of the canvases of Gainsborough heightens our pleasure in both…
Like Gray, Gainsborough brought to the observation of rustics the sensibilities of the Man of Feeling, so that Constable could refer justly to the canvasses of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man. The Cottage Door in the Huntington Art Gallery illustrates the various strands that united to form his final style.
The third of the trinity who led the Classical Age of British Painting was Richard Wilson (1714-1782). The third son of the rector of the University of Penygoes in Montgomeryshire, he was connected by birth with several notable landowning families and under his father received an excellent classical education. In 1729 he was sent to London to indulge his prevailing love for the arts of design , a euphemism of six years training under the obscure portrait painter and copyist Thomas Wright, possibly a pupil of Thomas Hudson. When his training was over he was helped by his family connections to get portrait comissions, including one from the Royal family. Before he left for Italy in 1750 he painted portraits which modernized the Kneller- Dahl tradition, attempted conversation pieces and sentimental fancy pictures, and made a reputation among artists for topographical landscape. The landscapes known to have been painted in England prior to his departure are in the topographical tradition to which the Thames Estuary School had imparted a new vitality. Westminster Bridge in the Philadelphia Museum of Art deserves a creditable place among those Thames scenes which show that direct and independent observation of light and atmosphere was firmly entrenched before the arrival of Canaletto in the following year exposed the native practitioners to the seductions of his Venetian style.
Wilson at his best , writes Lord Clark, understood the two chief lessons of Claude, that the center of the landscape is an area of light and that everything must be subordinated to a single mood . W.G. Constable has listed the main compositional correspondences with the seventeenth century master: the parallel recession of frontal planes; the trees in silhouette- like side-wings; the combination of architectural forms with trees, and the isolation of a building between the further mass and the edge of the picture; and the hazy atmosphere through which shines the nostalgic light of the afternoon sun, more muted in Wilson than in Claude. What Wilson brought of his own to these Claudian prescriptions was a keen eye for topographical character, so that even the ideal looks particular, the glow that he admired in his favourit Dutch masters, and an imagination steeped in those aspects of classical history and literature which appealed either to his love of the sublime or his taste for the civilized
The final stage of emancipation from the pictorial conventions of the Masters whom he had taken as models may be illustrated by comparing Snowdon from Llyn Nantle , in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, of which versions probably go back to 1766, with the undated but later Cader Idris (possibly 1774), in the National Gallery in London. The first is one of the most abstract of his classical compositions, a skeletal scheme of divided areas in which the colours are broadly applied with such mastery of tonality that the illusion of depth is almost stereoscopic in its intensity. The foreground is beautifully related to the lake and mountain, but artificial. On this viewpoint of romantic wonder, Wilson has stopped short of dehumanizing the landscape. It is equally distinct from the wildness of Salvator Rosa and il riposo di Claudio .
Wilson may have sometimes made his English rivers look like Arno, just as his Welsh lakes can conjure up Lake Nemi. Even here, his choice of the mountain scene may have been influenced by the recollection of the crater of Vesuvius. The two real landscapes of Italy and Britain were as interwind in his imagination as were the painted ones of Claude and the Dutch school. Before nature he freed himself from dependence on his masters, and came closer to the threshold of true romanticism than either Reynolds or Gainsborough.
Romanticism, the Permanent Revolution
Romanticism is a term loosely used to designate numerous and diverse changes in the arts during a period of more than 100 years (roughly, 1760-1870), changes that were a reaction against Neoclassicism (but not necessarily the classicism of Greece and Rome) or against what is variously called the Age of Reason, the Augustan Age, the Enlightenment, or 18th-century materialism. In the sense of a personal temperament Romanticism had always existed, but in the sense of an aesthetic period it signified works of art whose prime impulse and effect derived from individual rather than collective reactions. Romanticism can generally be said to have emphasized the personal, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the spontaneous, the emotional, and even the visionary and transcendental in works of art. The Romantic movement first developed in northern Europe with a rejection of technical standards based on the classical ideal that perfection should be attained in art.
It was writers and poets who gave initial expression to Romantic ideas; painters, while subject to similar feelings, acquired fundamental inspiration from the literature of the period. There was an increasing awareness generally of the way the various arts interacted. The Frenchman Eug ne Delacroix and the German Philipp Otto Runge explored the implications of musical analogies for painting, and everywhere writers, artists and composers could be found in close association. A salient feature of Romantic sensibility was awareness of the beauties of the natural world. Artists identified their personal feelings with nature’s changing aspects. An almost reverential affection, animated by the belief that the divine mind was immanent in nature, engendered at times a Christian or theistic naturalism. The artist was seen as the interpreter of hidden mysteries, to which end imaginative insight must combine with absolute fidelity and sincerity. In Britain and Germany especially, the moral implications inherent in the appreciation of natural or artistic beauty tended to outweigh aesthetic considerations.
Curiosity about the external world and a spirit of what might be called scientific inquiry led many painters to explore the minutiae of nature. Technological advance also excited artistic interest, though painting was affected less than architecture and the decorative arts; and the humanitarian sympathy and generosity so vital to the Romantic spirit gradually effected a reconciliation between art and life. and downtrodden that found most passionate and powerful expression in the works executed during and immediately after the Revolutions of 1848.
Romanticism in Britain, or the Triumph of Nature
In the late 1760s and ’70s a circle of British painters in Rome had already begun to find academic precepts inadequate. James Barry, the brothers John and Alexander Runciman, John Brown, George Romney, and the Swiss-born Henry Fuseli favoured themes–whether literary, historical, or purely imaginary–determined by a taste for the pathetic, bizarre, and extravagantly heroic. Mutually influential and highly eclectic, they combined, especially in their drawings, the linear tensions of Italian Mannerism with bold contrasts of light and shade.
Though never in Rome, John Hamilton Mortimer had much in common with this group, for all were participants in a move to found a national school of narrative painting. Fuseli’s affiliations with the German Romantic Sturm und Drang writers predisposed him, like Flaxman, toward the “primitive” heroic stories of Homer and Dante. Flaxman himself, in the two-dimensional linear abstraction of his drawings, a two-dimensionality implying rejection of Renaissance perspective and seen for instance in the expressive purity of “Penelope’s Dream” (1792-93), had important repercussions throughout Europe.
William Blake absorbed and outstripped the Fuseli circle, evolving new images for a unique private cosmology, rejecting oils in favour of tempera and watercolour, and depicting, as in “Pity” (1795; Tate Gallery, London [see photograph]), a shadowless world of soaring, supernatural beings. His passionate rejection of rationalism and materialism, his scorn for both Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Dutch Naturalists, stemmed from a conviction that “poetic genius” could alone perceive the infinite, so essential to the artist since “painting, as well as poetry and music, exists and exults in immortal thoughts.” The spiritual, symbolical expression of Blake’s complex sympathies, his ability to recognize God in a single blade of grass, inspired Samuel Palmer, who, with his friend Edward Calvert, extracted from nature a visionary world of exquisite, though short-lived, intensity.
George Stubbs s anatomical studies and accurate delineations of animals were echoed a generation later by Thomas Bewick’s bird studies, themselves harbingers of the drawings of Edwin Landseer and Ruskin’s closely observed renderings of naturalistic detail. Stubbs’s empathy for the animal world reemerged in the work of James Ward, together with an exultation in the power of nature, shared by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Demand for information about distant places partially superseded the taste for picturesque European scenes, and following William Hodges, who accompanied Captain James Cook’s second voyage (1772-75), such painters as Richard Parkes Bonington, Samuel Prout, John Frederick Lewis, and Edward Lear traveled widely, recording scenes of historic or exotic interest.
In portraiture an interest in extremes of mood found most eloquent expression in the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence who combined in portraits such as those of Richard Payne Knight (1794; Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) and Pope Pius VII (1819; Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) brilliant freedom of handling, at times approaching exhibitionism, with dramatic expression and setting, at times almost melodramatic.
History painting, too, was transformed: Bonington’s “Henri III and the English Ambassador” (1827-28; Wallace Collection, London), while testifying to a sustained delight in the medieval world, already betrays commensurate interest in period detail and the finer points of human insight. The authentic, domestic treatment of biblical themes at the hands of William Dyce and the Pre-Raphaelites (see below) contrasts sharply with the earlier apocalyptic fantasies of John Martin and Francis Danby. Inspired by David Wilkie’s mellow, unassuming representation of country life subject matter, William Mulready turned to contemporary scenes of daily life, adopting the brilliant palette that distinguished British painting for the next half-century. The high Victorian Age saw much narrative painting, a genre that was practiced with accurate and sympathetic observation, from the panoramic activity of William Powell Frith’s “Derby Day” (1858; Tate Gallery) to such intimate glimpses of reality as “The Travelling Companions” (1862; City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham), by Augustus Egg. Painting as a vehicle for social or moral comment was provided by Sir Luke Fildes and Frank Holl, in whose work a tendency to sentimentality is redeemed by a genuine regard for the sufferings of the poor. In the 1850s the Pre-Raphaelites gave expression to the painting of contemporary life with such memorable images as “The Blind Girl” (1856; City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham), by John Everett Millais, or “The Stonebreaker” (1857-58; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), by John Brett.
Empiricism and acceptance of the irrational, however, were not mutually exclusive, and each profoundly affected attitudes toward nature. Susceptible to the ideas of Blake and other radical theorists and animated by a growing spirit of inquiry into natural phenomena, painters slowly abandoned the picturesque desire to compose and became willing to be moved, awestruck, and terrified by nature unadorned. Early artists of the sublime, such as Alexander Cozens or Francis Towne, worked largely in watercolours and solved the problem of scale by abstraction–use of broad areas of colour to suggest the vast scope of natural forces–an approach developed by Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman.
By the early 19th century, the watercolourist John Varley was echoing current practice when he told his pupils John Linnell, William Mulready, and William Henry Hunt: “Go to nature for everything.” But already two outstanding British landscape painters, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, were going still further. Both men, while admiring the classical landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Poussin, believed that personal feeling was the mainspring of artistic activity and felt an almost mystical sympathy for the natural world. They made atmosphere almost palpable and painted everything from clouds to lichens with astonishing technical diversity. Constable considered himself before all else a “natural” painter and sought, in his own words, to capture “light–dews–breezes–bloom–and freshness” with scientific precision and deepest affection. For Constable, light clarified and enlivened, and his nostalgia for the Suffolk countryside is personal and explicit. With Turner, light increasingly diffused the objects illuminated, and only a more literary expression satisfied his concept of the sublime, drawing him to mountain grandeur, raging seas, storms, and conflagrations.
Turner was one of the greatests landscapists of the XIXth century. Although brought up in the academic tradition of the XVIIIth century, he became a pioneer in the study of light, colour and atmosphere. He anticipated the French Impressionists in breaking down conventional formulas of representation, but unlike them, he believed that his works must always express significant historical, mythological, literary or narrative themes. A line of development can be traced from his early historical landscapes that form settings for important human subjects, such as the plagues of Egypt or the story of Dido and Aeneas, to his later studies of sea and sky. Even without figures, these late works are expressions of important subjects: the relationship of man with its environment, with the power of nature in the terror of the storm, or with the beneficence of the sun.
During the second decade of the 1800s, Turner’s painting became increasingly luminous and atmospheric in quality. Even in paintings of actual places, as “St. Mawes at the Pilchard Season” (1812; Tate Gallery) and the two pictures of Oxford painted between 1809 and 1812 (exhibited in 1812), the hard facts of topography are diffused behind pearly films of colour; other pictures, such as “Frosty Morning” (1813; Tate Gallery), are based entirely on effects of light. Among the most ethereal landscapes of this period are “Lake of Geneva” (1810; Los Angeles County Museum), “Crossing the Brook” (1815; Tate Gallery), and “England; Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday” (1819; Tate Gallery), one of his largest and most ambitious pictures. Turner was much in demand as a painter of castles and countryseats for their owners. Two examples of such paintings are “Somer Hill, Tunbridge” and “Linlithgow Palace” (1810; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). He also continued to excel in marine painting, one of the most ambitious works being “Wreck of a Transport Ship” (1810; Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon).
With “Dido and Aeneas, Leaving Carthage on the Morning of the Chase” (1814; Tate Gallery), Turner began a series of Carthaginian subjects. The last exhibits of his life, at the Academy in 1850, included four works on the same theme. By appending long poetic quotations either from James Thomson’s Seasons, from works by Lord Byron, John Milton, William Shakespeare, and Alexander Pope, or from his own long poetic composition Fallacies of Hope, Turner showed that he regarded the literary-historical interpretation of his works as of paramount importance.
As if he felt that he had done all he could with the beauty of his native country, Turner set out in the summer of 1819 on his first visit to Italy. He spent three months in Rome–visited Naples, Florence, and Venice–and returned home in midwinter. During his journey he made about 1,500 drawings, and in the next few years he painted a series of pictures inspired by what he had seen. They show a great advance in his style, particularly in the matter of colour, which becomes purer, more prismatic, with a general heightening of key. A comparison of “The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl” (1823; Tate Gallery) with any of the earlier pictures reveals a far more iridescent treatment resembling the transparency of a watercolour. The shadows are as colourful as the lights, and he achieves contrasts by setting off cold and warm colours instead of dark and light tones.
During the 1820s, tours of the continent alternated with visits to various parts of England and Scotland. In 1825 Turner revisited The Netherlands and Belgium and the following year the Meuse, Moselle, and Loire rivers. Notable among the pictures of this period are such views as “The Harbour of Dieppe,” “Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet Boat: Evening,” and “Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer Morning” (Frick Collection, New York City). In 1827 he painted the brilliant sketches of the regatta now at the Tate Gallery, and in 1828 he went to Italy again. After his father’s death in 1829, Turner often visited the Earl of Egremont at Petworth, Sussex. His splendid sketches of Petworth probably belong to the early 1830s.
In the last years of his life, Turner was more famous, richer, and more secretive than ever. After several years of inactivity as professor of perspective at the Royal Academy, he resigned in 1838. In 1839 he bought a cottage in Chelsea, where he lived incognito under the assumed name of Booth. He was looked after by his old housekeeper, who guarded his privacy so zealously that she made it difficult for people to gain admission to his gallery. Turner continued to travel, however. In the last 15 years of his life, he revisited Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and France. Observers have recorded the untiring energy with which he sketched while abroad, and the drawings, numbering about 19,000 in the Turner Bequest, bear witness to this labour.
While Turner’s earlier paintings and drawings show the most accurate observation of architectural and natural detail, in his later work this is sacrificed to general effects of colour and light with the barest indication of mass. His composition tends to become more fluid, suggesting movement and space; some of his paintings are mere colour notations, barely tinted on a white ground, such as “Norham Castle, Sunrise” and “Sunrise, with a Boat Between Headlands” (1835-45; Tate Gallery). This approach may account for the large number of slightly brushed-in canvases found in Turner’s studio at the time of his death. These colourful abstractions are far more appreciated now than the historical and mythological subjects he exhibited.
Apart from fanciful reconstructions of ancient Rome and the scintillating Venetian cityscapes, which found ready purchasers in his day, the outstanding examples of his late work are “The Parting of Hero and Leander” (1837; National Gallery), a daring composition of sunset and moonlight with visions of spirits rising from the waters; “The Fighting T m raire’ Tugged to Her Last Berth To Be Broken Up, 1838″ (1839; National Gallery), a tribute to the passing age of sailing ships as they were about to be replaced by steam-powered vessels; and “Rain, Steam, and Speed–the Great Western Railway” (1844; National Gallery [see photograph]), which expresses Turner’s intense interest in the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution. Actually, the first picture to be hung in Britain’s National Gallery was the opalescent “Venice from the Steps of
the Europa” (1842), presented in 1847, while Turner was still alive. Turner’s preoccupation with the elements of fire and water appears in the Burning of the Houses of Parliament” (1835; Tate Gallery), in the large sketch “Fire at Sea” (Tate Gallery), and in “Rockets and Blue Lights” (1840; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.).
John Constable is the landscape artist who, together with Turner, dominated English painting of the XIXth century.
Although he showed an early talent for art and began painting his native Suffolk scenery before he left school, his great originality matured slowly. He committed himself to a career as an artist only in 1799, when he joined the Royal Academy Schools and it was not until 1829 that he was grudgingly made a full Academician, elected by a majority of only one vote. In 1816 he became financially secure on the death of his father and married Maria Bicknell after a seven-year courtship and in the fact of strong opposition from her family. During the 1820s he began to win recognition: The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London, 1821) won a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1824 and Constable was admired by Delacroix and Bonington among others. His wife died in 1828, however, and the remaining years of his life were clouded by despondency.
After spending some years working in the picturesque tradition of landscape and the manner of Gainsborough, Constable developed his own original treatment from the attempt to render scenery more directly and realistically, carrying on but modifying in an individual way the tradition inherited from Ruisdael and the Dutch 17th-century landscape painters. Just as his contemporary William Wordsworth rejected what he called the `poetic diction’ of his predecessors, so Constable turned away from the pictorial conventions of 18th-century landscape painters, who, he said, were always `running after pictures and seeking the truth at second hand’. Constable thought that `No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world’, and in a then new way he represented in paint the atmospheric effects of changing light in the open air, the movement of clouds across the sky, and his excited delight at these phenomena, stemming from a profound love of the country: `The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things. These scenes made me a painter.’
He never went abroad, and his finest works are of the places he knew and loved best, particularly Suffolk and Hampstead, where he lived from 1821. To render the shifting flicker of light and weather he abandoned fine traditional finish, catching the sunlight in blobs of pure white or yellow, and the drama of storms with a rapid brush. Henry Fuseli was among the contemporaries who applauded the freshness of Constable’s approach, for C. R. Leslie records him as saying: I like the landscapes of Constable; he is always picturesque, of a fine color, and de lights always in de right places; but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella.
Constable worked extensively in the open air, drawing and sketching in oils, but his finished pictures were produced in the studio. For his most ambitious works- six-footers as he called them- he followed the unusual technical procedure of making a full-size oil sketch, and in the 20th century there has been a tendancy to praise these even more highly than the finished works because of their freedom and freshness of brushwork. (The full-size sketch for The Hay Wain is in the V&A, London, which has the finest collection of Constable’s work.)
In England, Constable had no real successor and the many imitators (who included his son Lionel, 1825-87) turned rather to the formal compositions than to the more direct sketches. In France, however, he was a major influence on Romantics such as Delacroix, on the painters of the Barbizon School, and ultimately on the Impressionists.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement, echoing that of the Nazarenes (a group of religiously minded painters who sought to revive medieval workshop practices), reiterated many earlier Romantic ideals. Literary inspiration and a passion for the Middle Ages were tempered for the Pre-Raphaelites by a moral outlook that recoiled from sophistication and virtuosity and demanded rigorous studies from natural life. These painters handled literary, historical, biblical, and contemporary themes with the same sincerity and fidelity that yielded the sparkling precision of Pre-Raphaelite landscape. Their earnest pursuit of truth, whether in depicting painful social realities or concentrating on the foreground blades of grass in a landscape, entailed a denial of many orthodox artistic pleasures. Together with Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelites sustained the devotion to colour and light in painting that underlies the finest endeavours of English Romanticism.
This Britain s century of painting has been submitted to various analysis and more or less subjective interpretations. But apart from the critics bestowed upon them, at least in one respect they are worthy of praise. I refer to the fact that they managed to acquire in only one hundred years the masterful skill that led Turner or Constable into the highest gallery of European painters. Elie Faure is right: the English soul is not a plastic one; painting requires a capacity for objective generalisation that suits neither Englishmen nor their activities. But their tenacious, keen sense of observation, their restless attempts to borrow colours from Venetians, linear shapes from the painters of Florence, resulted in the creation of a school of painting, an artistic conscience as well as a social mentality strong enough to support the appearance of genius. Imitation turned into creation. Turner felt painting as a search for what was intimate, profoundly real and objective in nature and world. This vision enables Giuseppe Gatt to raise British painting to the level of creation:
Turner was the first truly modern painter of Europe.
Burke, Joseph, English Art 1714- 1800, 1976
Clark, Kenneth, English Romantic Poets and Landscape Painting, 1945
Constable, W. G. Richard Wilson, 1953
Faure, Elie, Histoire de L Art- L Art moderne,1921
Gilbey, Walter, Animal Painters in England, 1900
Gowing, Lawrence, Turner: Imagination and Reality, 1966
Leslie, C. R. and Taylor, Tom The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knight, 1809
Nicolau- Golfin, Marin, Istoria artei, 1968
Reynolds, G. Constable: the Natural Painter, 1965
Richardson, Essay on the Theory of Painting, 1715
Tinker, Brewster, Chauncey, Nature s Simple Plan, 1922
Vertue, George, Notebooks, 1713-1752
Waterhouse, E. K. Reynolds, 1941
Painting in Britain, 1953
Whitley, W. T. Thomas Gainsborough, 1925
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