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English Figure Painting (1700-1900)
ENGLISH ART MUSEUMS
In the aftermath of eminent English miniaturists such as Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), Isaac Oliver (1568-1617) and Samuel Cooper (1609-1672), the innovative William Hogarth (1697-1764), the 'grand style' portraitist Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and the singular Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) are the three artists who sum up the best of figure-drawing and figure-painting in eighteenth century England, and overshadow the rest of their contemporaries.
George Romney, almost alone, has escaped this partial obscurity. After the death of Gainsborough he was Reynolds's only serious rival as a portrait-painter, and his reputation has survived the vicissitudes of taste to the present day. His pictures have fetched extravagant prices in the auction-room, and his name is often bracketed with those of Reynolds and Gainsborough as the third of a triumvirate of great English portrait-painters. So high a reputation is hardly deserved. His painting has prettiness, charm, a sense of linear pattern and sound direct handling, but none of the qualities which place Reynolds and Gainsborough among the great masters. Yet he was not a derivative painter, and so he rightly deserves to be ranked above the direct followers of Reynolds.
MODERN BRITISH PAINTING
WORLD'S TOP PAINTERS
Romney was a favourite of fortune, and
he achieved success in London almost as easily as he had done at Kendal.
He settled in a small studio in Dove Court, and there he carried out a
composition of the "Death of Wolfe", which was awarded a prize
of fifty guineas by the Society of Arts. This picture, strange as it may
seem today, was considered revolutionary in its own time. The subject
was thought too modern to be suitable for historical painting, and Romney
had committed the further solecism of clothing his figures in the dress
of their own day instead of in the costumes of antiquity. Such intolerable
vulgarity was too much for the stomachs of art
critics and connoisseurs who created such an outcry that the Society
of Arts was constrained to reverse its decision, and awarded the prize
to Mortimer for a picture of "Edward the Confessor seizing the treasure
of his mother", a subject at once noble and antique. The upshot of
the whole affair was that Romney received twenty-five guineas conscience
money, and conceived a dislike for Reynolds, whom rightly or wrongly he
believed to be responsible, which outlasted it. The hostility between
the two men persisted, and probably accounts for the fact that Romney
never sought nor received academic honours.
18th Century Figurative Painters
The finest work of Francis Cotes RA (1725-70), and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) might almost be mistaken for Reynolds, and Tilly Kettle (c.1740-86) sometimes gives a very Reynolds-like look to his pictures, though the quality of his paint is much thinner. Cotes, who died comparatively young, although a close follower of Reynolds, had some personality of his own. His rendering of character is sensitive and his colour-schemes are individual, being cooler than those of Reynolds. Joseph Wright, like Reynolds a pupil of Hudson, was a fine painter, but had not a very distinct individuality, and came under various influences as well as that of Reynolds, sometimes coming nearer to the work of Francis Hayman, or the early Gainsborough. Tilly Kettle again had not a very strongly marked personality, and he did little more than absorb some of the surface qualities of Reynolds's art. Like several other painters of this time he spent some years in India, where he found a better market for his work among the servants of the East India Company than he did in England.
John Opie RA (1761-1807), also owed something to Reynolds. Born in Cornwall, his work attracted attention by its vitality while he was still a young man, and he was given the nickname of 'The Cornish Wonder'. His handling is particularly vigorous, and his personality strongly marked, but in colour he inclined to a portentous and gloomy blackness. He is at his best in heads, such as "Portrait of the Painter" (National Gallery), and "Portrait of a Boy" (National Gallery).
A large number of painters were engaged in producing these little pictures, and they form one of the most attractive aspects of eighteenth-century art. Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Romney all produced work of this class, and even Reynolds himself produced an occasional example of it, as in a semi-humorous group of his friends, and another of a group of members of the Dilettanti Club. It was, however, a type of picture for which Reynolds's gifts did not especially fit him. Keenness of observation, dramatic sense, and a power of easy and unpretentious grouping were the essentials of these pictures which stand at the very opposite end of the scale from the pompous history-paintings. Modest in their art as in their size they present a complete microcosm of eighteenth-century domestic life. Besides the artists already mentioned, J M Laroon (1679-1772), Joseph Highmore (1692-1780), Thomas Patch (d.1774), Joseph Nollekens (1702-48), Francis Hayman (1708-76), Arthur Devis (1711-87), John Downman (1750-1824), Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), Francis Wheatley (1747-1801), and many others worked in this painting genre.
Of these Johann Zoffany stands out as the
most important. Though not an Englishman by birth, the character of his
work and long residence in England entitle him to be considered a member
of the English school. One of the original members of the Royal Academy
he was one of the most successful artists of his time, as he remains for
us one of the most attractive. His characterization is sharp, and there
is in his work something of the vivid life of Hogarth, though without
his satire. His and the other conversation pieces of the age have an interest
which the other portraits lack, in showing us the sitters in their own
natural surroundings. The backgrounds are not simply fanciful scenes,
the function of which is merely decorative and suggestive. They are actual
rooms and actual landscapes, some of which can still be recognized. Out
of the immense variety of Zoffany's work it is not easy to pick on particular
examples of special interest, but "Lord Willoughby de Broke with
his wife and three children", "The Dutton Family" (playing
cards), and "Music Party on the Thames at Fulham" are all fine
examples of his vivacious art. Like Hogarth, Zoffany was closely connected
with the stage, and portraits of actors and scenes from plays form a large
part of his work.
With these painters may be grouped the animaliers and painters of animal and sporting subjects which were popular throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. John Wooton (1668-1765) and James Seymour (1702-52) were early members of a school which reached its highest level in the work of George Stubbs (1724-1806).
Born in Liverpool, George Stubbs studied anatomy at York, and visited Italy in 1754, but he did not make the mistake of trying to imitate Italian art. If the Italians influenced him at all it was in developing his draughtsmanship and fine sense of form. Much of his life was spent in studying the anatomy of the horse, and his book on the subject brought him an international scientific reputation. A second book, on the comparative anatomy of the horse and man, was left unfinished at his death. Most of Stubbs's pictures are small in scale, delicately and precisely painted, with a charming feeling for atmosphere in his landscape backgrounds.
Although the horse was the main study of
his life, the little portrait-figures are equally well and sensitively
painted, and he would occupy a high place among the painters of conversation
pieces on these alone. He was never, like many of the sporting painters,
content with a technical description of a horse amounting to little more
than a coloured diagram. For all his scientific knowledge of equine anatomy
he always sees with an artist's eye and produces a picture which is as
charming aesthetically as it is accurate anatomically. Stubbs was as successful
when working on a large scale as on a small, and his largest piece of
equestrian art, "Hambletonian beating Diamond at Newmarket",
measures thirteen feet seven inches by eight feet two inches. Another
picture, almost as large, of Hambletonian with a groom and stable boy
is probably his masterpiece. It has a largeness of vision and a magnificence
of action which are truly Michelangelesque, and it is far more genuinely
in the 'grand style' than the self-conscious efforts of the history-painters.
No words of praise can be too high for it. In draughtsmanship, design,
and handling of paint it is one of the greatest pictures in English art.
From the very simplest material and without the slightest straining after
effect he has produced a picture which can stand comparison with the works
of the great masters.
James Barry (1741-1806), a highly talented Irishman, was one of the least unsuccessful. Like so many artists of his time he visited Italy, where he contracted the virus of the 'grand style', but he was a capable painter. His pictures were mainly of classical and Biblical subjects, but he sometimes adventured into the history of his own day. Taking warning perhaps from the fate of Romney he painted a picture of the death of Wolfe in which all the figures were nude. But he was no more successful in winning the approval of Reynolds, whose delicate sense of propriety in the matter of dress was again offended, and the vexed question of what General Wolfe should have worn to die in remains unsolved. A little self-portrait by Barry in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows what powers he had to squander.
JH Mortimer ARA (1741-89), the subject of a delightful little portrait by Richard Wilson, was another who achieved some reputation by historical painting, and Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) belongs to the same school. Born in Zurich, Fuseli came to London in 1770 with a letter of introduction to Reynolds, and subsequently studied art in Italy for eight years, returning to England in 1778 to paint vast canvases of flying and straddling nudes. He contributed to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, and produced forty-seven large paintings illustrative of Paradise Lost. These turgid pictures would be of little importance were it not for the fact that they seem to have had some effect on the genius of Fuseli's friend, William Blake. Fuseli, however, was a man of intellect, and his comments on his fellow-painters were always pithy and to the point. The drawings of the sculptor, John Flaxman (1755-1826), belong in some ways to this school, though they were mainly based on Greek vase-painting, and they also have the interest of having influenced Blake. But the paintings of modern history by JS Copley, already discussed, were worth all these 'grand designs' put together.
19th Century Figurative Painters
Sir Thomas Lawrence
Sir Henry Raeburn
The tendency to a more literal and naturalistic vision was rapidly growing in the early years of the century, and the work of another Scottish portrait-painter, Sir John Watson Gordon, carried the naturalistic outlook a stage further, but he had not Raeburn's genius and largeness of vision. Generally speaking, the portrait art of the nineteenth century as compared with that of the eighteenth shows a loss of style, and is literal and uninspired in treatment. Naturalism in the hands of men of genius can give aesthetically significant results, but with lesser men it degenerates too often into a mere description of externals without vitality or style, and the later portraiture of the century, with a few notable exceptions, is sadly lacking in artistic distinction of any kind.
Although widely renowned as a landscape artist, John Constable (1776-1837) also produced a number of portraits (eg. Maria Bicknell, 1816; Tate Gallery) and other figurative works. See also: English Landscape Painting.
19th Century Culture
Sir David Wilkie
William Mulready (1786-1863) painted some pictures in a vein similar to Wilkie's as well as others of a pseudo-poetic character. He was a most careful craftsman, and at his best a fine colourist, but his subjects are usually trivial, and there is a complete absence of character in his female faces. He was in some ways a forerunner of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. "Choosing the Wedding Dress", possibly his best picture, has a brilliance of colour, a crystalline texture of paint, and a minuteness of finish which are quite in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, but the absence of character in the faces, and lack of vividly observed gesture or decorative quality emphasize the distinction between the Pre-Raphaelites and their immediate predecessors.
The Creative Genius
of William Blake
CR Leslie, EM Ward, GS Newton
John Phillip, Frederick Hurlstone
Sir Edwin Landseer
J Ward (1769-1859) also painted cattle, but he brought to his work a vigour of execution and a power of imagination which make his pictures a most welcome exception among these uninspired painters. His painting is closely based on Rubens and his cattle are usually placed in grand landscape settings, as in "Gordale Scar", which, with the "Harlech Castle" (National Gallery) and "Landscape with Cattle" (Tate Gallery), is among the most enlivening productions of the time.
The subject-matter of William Etty (1787-1849) is similar to that of Stothard, and he had no more genuine imagination and a less charming fancy, but he was a born painter, which Stothard was not, and a colourist of delicacy and splendour. As a painter of the nude he is almost without rival among English artists, and most of his pictures are really no more than studies from the nude model to which he has given some fanciful pretext. In face and figure his nymphs and goddesses belong to the oval-faced, corset-waisted, fashionable type of his time, but the pearly quality of his flesh and the magnificence of his colour and handling redeem his faults, as in the "Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm" (National Gallery), which is a favourable specimen of his art. William Hilton (1786-1839) treated subjects of the same kind, but without Etty's genius.
19th Century Neoclassical Subject Painters
The virtuoso figurative subject painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was one of the most popular artists of the Victorian neo-classical movement, with a range of female nudes in Roman settings, like The Tepidarium (1881). Fell abruptly out of fashion on his death; but 'rediscovered' in the 1980s. Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) combined opulently coloured classical paintings with highly influential sculptures. Leighton, along with the lesser known classicist Albert Moore (1841-93), also exemplified the creative philosophy of the 19th century Aestheticism movement. For a slight comparison, see the English romantic painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-96), and Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) - and later including Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) - was the most important artist group of the Victorian age in England. It stimulated renewed interest in the decorative Arts and Crafts Movement (1862-1914), and others, and gave a boost to traditional styles of figurative painting.
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ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY