Built from the masterpieces of London’s Tate Britain, this exhibition highlights a key period in the history of English painting.
Between 1760 and 1820, England underwent a period of transformation, notably due to the industrial revolution. The country also asserts itself on the international level by being at the head of a vast colonial empire. These changes are accompanied by artistic and cultural development.
English painters of this generation cannot rely on their own British identity. Until that time, it was not really an English painting school. The great painters to whom they can refer because they have worked in England (Holbein or Van Dyck for example) are foreigners. This desire to set up a school was reflected in the foundation, in 1768, of the Royal Academy of Arts, based on the model of the Royal Academy of French Painting. Artists have to face an English specificity: there are few royal commissions outside portraits (the English monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, with limited power) and few religious commissions (the country is Anglican and few works of art adorn places of worship).
Painters turn to a private clientele that has a preference for the portrait and landscape genre.
It is at this moment that the exhibition opens with two great portrait artists of the time: Reynolds and Gainsborough.
Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the first President of the Royal Academy. He has travelled extensively and knows the great Italian masters of the Renaissance well. He develops a portrait art that enhances the model by staging it in a grandiose setting or by transforming it into a hero of antiquity.
Reynolds uses the architecture and the sumptuous clothes to highlight the social position of the model. He refers to Antiquity (the young man has a posture inspired by that of the Apollo of the Belvedere) but also to Venetian painting (by the colours, the golden light, the architectural decoration and the low vanishing point). For the anecdote, Reynolds had first placed his character in front of a landscape with another dog and modified the painting at the request of the sponsor who wanted to pose with his favorite animal, who had just died.
Here again, it is inspired by Antiquity (the position of women is inspired by the Venus Medici). He is also inspired by Van Dyck with a portrait of a very dressed woman posing in front of a landscape. It is also worth noting the painter’s technique, which plays with texture effects, particularly lumpy effects, visible on the model’s shawl.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) is a well-known portrait painter. Unlike his rival, he was not inspired by antiquity but had an admiration for Van Dyck, Dutch painting and 18th century French painting. He is more interested in the psychology of his models than in their social representation. He also innovates by his technique with a very free touch, sometimes close to the sketch.
The psychology and energy of the model are clearly visible in this portrait, with its very natural pose. Notice the technical virtuosity in the rendering of the fabrics.
Gainsborough places her profile model in a trendy suit. The woman is represented in a nonchalant pose, a melancholic touch that prefigures romantic poses. He still adopts a very free touch, with great brush strokes, especially in the fabrics. This portrait, close to the sketch, gives the impression that the model blends into nature.
Following these two great painters, other artists will continue in the portrait genre. The speed of economic and urban development favours a flourishing art market for them, especially around large cities such as London or Liverpool or Bath, a fashionable spa town. I will mention only two examples, among others present at the exhibition: Francis Cotes and John Hoppner.
Francis Cotes (1726-1770) practiced oil painting but also pastel. He is best known for his portraits of women and children and, it is his untimely death that prevents him from becoming Reynolds’ and Gainsborough’s rival.
Gainsborough’s death and Reynolds’ decline gave way to artists such as John Hoppner (1758-1810), who enjoyed immense success as a portrait painter.
Although he does not possess the virtuosity of a Gainsborough, this portrait has many qualities, including an early romantic character (melancholic face in front of a moonlit landscape) or the pretty highlights of lipstick and necklace.
The years 1730-1740 saw the appearance of conversation pieces, group portraits, often representing families and which were staged with more freedom. They reflect the growing importance given to the private sphere and family life. This is also the reason for the increase in the number of portraits of children.
The costume and pose are inspired by a portrait of King Henry VIII painted by Holbein the Younger. The solemnity of the reference to the severe royal portrait contrasts with the joyful expression of the little boy and the malice of the two puppies.
Like his brother, Reynolds chose to have little Frances Crewe wear a disguise. Indeed, the basket she carries, which the painter had already represented in an earlier painting, is the one used by strawberry sellers in London in the 18th century. On the other hand, the girl’s luxurious costume was not likely to be worn by the saleswomen and emphasizes above all the social position of her parents.
The exhibition now focuses on the other major genre favoured by English painting: landscape. It allows many artists to express themselves with far fewer constraints than in the portrait. Painters began to travel the English countryside to discover new subjects, especially since the wars with France limited their stays on the continent. Some artists also travel through the new colonial empire and bring back landscapes that remain, in general, very classical.
This small landscape, bathed in evening light, plays on quite marked « clairs-obscurs ». This may be due to the fact that the painter worked from models that he lit with candles.
Very closely linked to landscape painting, the technique of watercolour finds in England a favourable ground for its development. Painters can experiment with new techniques and, at the same time, express their full sensitivity. Until the 1770s, watercolour was used in the traditional way, that is, to bring colour to a drawing (colour was then constrained by the line of the drawing), but artists discovered new ways of working by making colour more independent: colour acquired an independent figurative power (it exceeded the line of the drawing, or even there was no more line of drawing).
The landscape is reduced to a few bands of colours that reflect the immobility of the countryside. The cloudy sky reflects Constable’s interest in atmospheric disturbances, a taste that would intensify around 1820
Turner wants to reflect the grandeur and magnificence of Roman architecture. The monumentality is accentuated by a low flight point, and by the presence of small figures that give scale.
As we saw in the introduction, English painting offers practically no history paintings, since the princely and religious authorities are not prepared to finance this type of subject. Yet, around 1780, artists turned to dramatic and fantastic subjects inspired by their country’s literature. What often matters then is a breathtaking visual effect, understandable to a larger number of spectators.
Turner shows the chaos of the biblical episode. There is a pile of ruins and bodies, in which Lot and his daughters can hardly be distinguished, fleeing to the lower right.
In this immense early epic, John Martin testifies, both to the taste of the time for archaeological excavations and also to a taste for cataclysm and the sublime. The extraordinary panoramic view and the effects of colour and light give it a fascinating character.
It is with these paintings that the exhibition ends, works that will open the way to new conceptions of art.
The Golden Age of English Painting, until 16 February 2020, at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris