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FROM THE HISTORY OF BRITISH PAINTING

British painting reached its zenith in the XVIIIth and early XIXth century. Beginning with Hogarth, a school of painting appeared that could be identified as characteristically British. The one hundred years between 1750-1850 witnessed the development of the three art forms: portraiture, landscape and genre, that became the hallmarks of British painting.

However, up to the third quarter of the XVIIIth century, portraiture was practically the only form of painting in Britain. It’s quite explainable, as the Englishman’s standard of living had become very high by the middle of the century and those who had achieved success wished they could be remembered for postery.

This demand for portraits was not successfully met by a gifted painter – Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), who didn’t want British art to be so provincial and isolated. It was he who insisted that English artists should be brought into line with European art and that they should develop the Grand Style of painting.

When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, it was obvious that Reynolds was the only possible choice for President. From 1769 to 1790, he delivered lectures every year at prize-giving ceremonies. These lectures were regarded as the most sensible exposition of the Academic view that by well-directed work it was possible to learn the Rules of Art and use discoveries and ideas of the old masters to create a new style of ne’s own.

In these lectures Reynolds recommended that the would-be painter should put his faith in old masters, from whom he should be ready to borrow. He advised that in portraits the grace should consist more in taking the general air than in exact rendering of every feature. He suggested that the proportions of sitter’s figure should be altered in accordance with a fixed ideal. Thus a young woman should have the proportions of goddess Diana, and her heigh should be exactly ten times the length of her face. He considered it necessary that the hand should be the same length as the face and the big toe should be the same length as the nose, if the ladies of the XVIIIth century seem impossibly tall and willow-like, it is Sir Joshua’s theories rather rhan the physical peculiarities of English women that are responsible for it.

In the teaching Reynolds also proposed that drapery and clothing should be the subject of rules. In his opinion it was describle that painters in the Grand Style should paint clothing as neither woolen, nor silk, satin or velvet: it should be drapery and nothing more. The drapery shouldn’t remind one of the temporary costumes, the familiarity of which alone was enough to destroy all dignity. Thus the draperies have nothing to do with costumes of the period and are merely imaginary dresses skillfully arranged to form an impressive frame for the aristocratic personage. Finally he taught that everything in the picture should look very natural. Thus Reynolds tried to fuse portraiture with his historical painting.

However, the painter who did most to introduce another type of of subject matter into English art was Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Of a poetic nature he was the antitheses of the businesslike Reynolds. He abhorred rules and cared little about the old masters. By necessity a portraitist, he was by inclination and disposition a landscapist. His dreamlike landscapes heralded the great English school of landscape painting.

His lead was followed in the next generation by perhaps the greatest landscapist, John Constable (1776-1837). Like Gainsborough he ignored the rules established by Reynolds. He insisted that art should be based on observation of nature on the one hand and feeling rather than logic and reason on the other. Constable was the herald of romanticism. But the realistic quality of hos art is sensed very strongly. It was best expressed by an eccentric contemporary who put up an umbrella while looking at his landscapes.

The apostle of the philosophy of romanticism was William Blake (1757-1827), who was bitterly opposed to the rules of Reynolds, proposing that the guiding force for creative spirit should come from imagination, not reason.

A complete expression of romantic ideal can find itself in the pictures of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Although his great talent was recognized at an early age he deliberately turned his back on the glittering social work of London. Victorian England, which found in more important that a man be a gentleman in the first place and only in the second be a genius, never forgave him.




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