In his treatise on the theory of painting, De Pictura (1436), the Italian humanist architect and writer, Leon Battista Alberti, advocated the use of classical principles and an idealized treatment of subjects in painting. He argued that history painting was the highest ranked artform on the grounds that it required technical mastery, a solid education in the classics, and must serve a moral purpose. The resultant works would produce an edifying effect on the viewer, affording them qualities of virtue and nobility of character. In the era that followed, Raphael's frescos, which employed Biblical and classical narratives involving notable figures to convey the theme of spiritual and worldly wisdom, were presented as exemplars of early Grand Manner painting. But it was Raphael's Cartoons (1515-16) - seven large designs, depicting the lives of St. Paul and St. Peter, painted for Pope Leo X as Sistine Chapel tapestries - that had the most direct impact on the development of the Grand Manner. The eminent Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin described the cartoons as "the Parthenon sculptures of modern art" and they had a profound influence on artists like Carracci and the French émigré Nicolas Poussin. In 1623 King Charles I of England purchased the Cartoons and, once housed in England, they duly imparted their influence on British artists.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori
Giovanni Pietro Bellori prefigured the concept of the Grand Manner in his Vite de' Pittori, Scultori et Architetti Moderni (Lives of the Artists) (1672) where he advocated an idealized and classical approach to painting, as exemplified in the works of Renaissance artists Raphael, Michelangelo and Alberti. Modelling his biography on Giorgio Vasari's seminal Lives of the Artists (1550), Bellori argued that artists should "form in their minds [...] an example of superior beauty and, reflecting on it, improve upon nature until it is without fault". Such works, he argued, would be understood by "higher spirits" though not by commoners who were inclined to "praise things painted naturalistically".
Bellori's Lives of the Artists promoted the likes of Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Lanfranco, Domenichino, Barocci, Poussin, the Carracci brothers, the sculptors Alessandro Algardi and François Duquesnoy, and the architect Domenico Fontana. Emerging from this most illustrious company of artists, Bellori offered Annibale Carracci's work as the very epitome of the Renaissance revival. The art historian Julius von Schlosser observed that Bellori's biography was so influential he became "the most important historiographer of art not only of Rome, but all Italy, even of Europe, in the seventeenth century". Indeed, his ideas became so widely influential they were adopted by Charles Le Brun, director of the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and by several influential British aristocrats and patrons.
The art historian Keith Christiansen noted that, with brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico, Annibale Carracci, "set out to transform Italian painting [by rejecting] the artificiality of Mannerist painting [and] championing a return to nature". In 1595 Annibale travelled to Rome to work for the Farnese family, where, influenced by the work of the Renaissance masters, he painted his fresco cycle The Loves of the Gods (1597-1601) in the Farnese Palazzo. The monumental work depicted narratives of the Greek gods, painted as classically inspired figures within an illusionistic architectural setting. Bellori viewed the work as representing a timeless ideal - "Human Love Governed by Celestial Love" - and resisted the aesthetic temptations of the artificial and over-elaborate style that characterized the dominant Mannerist style. Carracci promoted rather a return to the subtle naturalism as explored previously by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Correggio. Carracci's classical and idealizing approach directly influenced the likes of Rubens and Poussin and by the 1630s the first manifestation of the Grand Manner style had been adopted as the benchmark for Academic art.
Anthony van Dyck
Anthony van Dyck had studied with the Flemish artist Hendrick van Bale from the age of ten, and established his own studio when he was still in his teens. However, he gave up his studio to work with Peter Paul Rubens in 1617. The Baroque master was a leading artist of the day, his work combining a dramatic exuberance with a deep knowledge of classical sculpture and Renaissance painting. Rubens's portraiture was noted for its lively informality and classical elements, as seen for instance in his Marchesa Maria Grimaldi and her Dwarf (c.1607) which Van Dyke referenced in his painting A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son (c. 1626). Rubens would become a key influence on van Dyck but it is thought that he would have been conversant with the techniques of the two other key figures working within the contemporary Flemish Baroque style: Frans Hals and Judith Leyster.
In 1621 van Dyke moved to Italy (via a short stay in England) where he met Bellori who commented that "his behaviour was that of a nobleman rather than an ordinary person, and he shone in rich garments". Van Dyke spent six years in Italy, associating with artists in Bellori's circle, before returning to Flanders. Meanwhile, the British King Charles I, an avid collector and patron of the arts, had recruited noted artists (including Rubens for a period of nine months in 1630). With the support of his aristocratic connections, van Dyck moved to London and became part of Charles's royal court in 1632. He was to reside in England for the rest of his life (notwithstanding brief trips overseas) as he became celebrated (and knighted) for his many depictions of the King, his family and members of his royal court. The portraits, conveying the grandeur of his subjects with a lively sense of movement, color and stylish elegance, became known as the "cavalier" style, and offered a template for the development of the Grand Manner, and what would become known as the "swagger portrait".
Joshua Reynolds developed the style of portraiture following his return in 1752 from an extended trip to Italy where he studied classical ruins and Renaissance masterpieces. His Captain the Honourable Augustus Keppel (1752-73) was a full-length portrait of the maritime officer who was also a longtime friend and patron. The portrayal revealed the influence of classical art and history painting in the way it showed Keppel, in a pose echoing that of the Apollo Belvedere (120-140 CE), striding onto a rocky shore after his 50-strong gun boat had been wrecked off the Normandy coast in 1747. Reynolds's creation of an "action scene", with the heroic figure shown in dynamic movement, was highly innovative and much acclaimed. The portrait established his reputation and allowed him to establish a studio in London. The leading portraitist of the day (not to mention a "man of letters") he became co-founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768.
Between 1769 and 1790 Reynolds delivered fifteen influential lectures at the Royal Academy (later published as Discourses on Art). His Third and Fourth Discourses (1770 and 1771) promoted what he called "the grand style". Reynolds singled out Raphael's Cartoons (1515-16) for especial praise, stating: "How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact, may be seen in the cartoons of Raffaelle (sic). In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving". The Grand Manner would demand that detail and background elements should be minimal and selective and function only as a kind of visual metaphor that informed on the nobility of the character. His term "grand style" or "great style" subsequently became known as the Grand Manner. Viewing the Grand Manner as central to a distinctive British art, he also viewed it as the culmination of the classical tradition, as he wrote, "the gusto grande of the Italians, the beau idéal of the French, and the great style, genius, and taste among the English, are but different appellations of the same thing".
The American Grand Manner
According to the art historian E. H. Gobrich, by "the eighteenth century, English institutions and English taste became the admired models for all people in Europe who longed for the rule of reason" (Academies in other words). But in Europe, unlike America, the Grand Manner style was having to compete with the "more delicate and intimate effects" of artists such as Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin whose "quiet glimpses of ordinary life" recalled Vermeer "in the way they "preserve[d] the poetry of a domestic scene".
While America's supreme colonial-era portraitist John Singleton Copley headed in the opposite direction (his precise portraits had garnered the approval of Reynolds and Benjamin West who persuaded him to refine his innate talents in England where, like his compatriot West, he added history painting to his already impressive portraits repertoire). Reynolds saw his influence extend across the Atlantic to a number of first generation American artists; names such as Gilbert Stuart, Ralph Earl, Charles Wilson Peale, John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, Samuel F.B. Morse, Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. The Peales, located in Philadelphia, became well known for their Grand Manner portraits, while Trumbull, working as both an architect and a painter, created the National Academy of Design in New York which he hoped would rival the excellence of the Royal Academy in London. Some American artists had established studios in London and, on their return to the United States, introduced the Grand Manner style to an audience eager for high quality portraiture. These artists promoted an American art that would rival and surpass the European tradition and portray the leaders of the American Revolution and the newly formed republic in a heroic light.
Concepts and Styles
The Swagger Portrait
Though portraiture had a long history of aristocratic and wealthy subjects desirous of visual confirmation of their elevated station in life, Anthony van Dyck is generally credited as the pioneer of the "swagger portrait", that being a form of portraiture that made a public statement; or a "conversation piece". Sitters adopted a cavalier pose that expressed an attitude of insouciance - or "swagger" - that gave the subgenre its name. This style was exemplified in a number of van Dyck's portraits showing aristocrats resplendent in their finery and exaggerating, or "cutting", a pose. As art critic Richard Dorment noted, "With his sumptuous swagger-portraits of the court of King Charles I, Van Dyck transformed the history of painting" in Britain.
Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy (c. 1770) paid homage to van Dyck's The Children of King Charles I of England (1637) (a portrayal of Charles II as a boy, dressed in red silk). By the late 1700s even middle class sitters commissioned swagger portraits, with Joseph Wright of Derby, for instance, employing backgrounds with rich draperies or classical columns to portray the cotton manufacturer Samuel Oldknow (1790-92). Swagger portraits, painted by John Hoppner and Thomas Lawrence, continued to be popular through the 19th century, and John Singer Sargent's elegant and stylish portraits were particularly celebrated examples, as seen, for example, in his Portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892). Psychologically revealing, such works eschewed the Grand Manner's classical allusions to noble virtue in favor of a more modern approach that showed off the personality of the sitter. Moving into the twentieth century, Augustus John, Britain's leading portraitist, expanded the range of the swagger portrait beyond aristocrats to include well-known writers such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead.
History Painting and Contemporary Events
Just as the Grand Manner showed contemporary figures as idealized representations of virtue and nobility, so history painting began to import contemporary figures into heroic narratives. Despite its name (history painting), the genre had typically portrayed multi-figured mythical narratives taken from the Bible, Greek mythology and Roman history rather than contemporary historic events. The move towards contemporary events was fuelled by the emergence of modern states and a rising sense of nationalism, and in 1760 the Society of Artists of Great Britain established two annual prizes for paintings depicting British history. Benjamin West, an American painter came to Britain to study with Joshua Reynolds. As the King's official history painter, and second president of the Royal Academy, he took up lifelong residence in London, becoming a leading proponent of this style following the exhibition of his celebrated and controversial The Death of General Wolfe (1770). Portraying the general's heroic death on the battlefield as his army achieved victory at the 1759 Battle of Quebec, West innovatively painted the figures in contemporary dress, rather than classical costume. Archbishop Drummond, who was West's long-time patron, and Joshua Reynolds urged the artist to paint the figures in Roman togas, but Wolfe protested, "the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist".
As public exhibitions grew in number and frequency, paintings that depicted national history were often the most popular with audiences, especially those by two American ex-patriots, West and Copley. As the art historian Stephen Mark Caffey noted, "To follow the trajectory of history painting's rise, relevance and obsolescence is to track Britons' negotiation of their global status as a 'free though conquering people'". In Caffey's view "Imperial anxiety afforded history painting its short-lived relevance among English-speaking audiences during the second half of the eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth centuries, and imperial self-acceptance rendered that most highly-esteemed of artistic genres obsolete".
Empire and Revolution
In 1769, the year in which King George III established The Royal Academy of Art, Britain was an emerging global empire. The art critic Jonathan Jones noted that "Reynolds placed art at the centre of national political and public life [arguing] that beauty was as important as money and guns in Britain's imperial destiny". In his first lecture as newly appointed president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds argued that what was needed for the emerging empire was "elegance and refinement", an ideal art that would portray the moral virtue of British character and one worthy of governing the globe. Indeed, Reynolds's artistic allusions connected notable contemporaries to the glory and grandeur of the Roman Empire. In America, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, and John Trumbull (among others) used the Grand Manner to depict the founding fathers as idealized figures of a new republic, one equivalent, perhaps, to that of a new Roman republic.
Grand Manner portraiture began to decline at the fin de siècle as the style was seen as "last century" and pretentious. In 1907 Sargent closed his studio (though he continued to paint landscapes) while Augustus John took the mantle of Britain's leading portraitist through the 1920s (though several critics noted his artistic decline following World War I). The artists of the Grand Manner had, nevertheless, left their mark on subsequent generations with Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough leaving their indelible imprint of British and international art history. Their influence extending to the works by John Singleton Copley, James Northcote, Hugh Barron, Gilbert Stuart, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Indeed, Reynolds's lectures, his role in founding the Royal Academy and his life-long presidency, helped shape the very development of art education.
There has been a renewed interest in Sargent's work after 1950s. His portraits influenced the look of Andy Warhol's early work; Warhol remarking that Sargent "made everybody looks glamorous. Taller. Thinner". Sargent also influenced contemporary British portraitist Isabelle Watling and contemporary American artists Kehinde Wiley and Jordan Casteel. A New York gallery held a 2014 exhibition - Sargent's Daughters - which included the works by forty women artists "exploring the legacy of John Singer Sargent". The art critic Jonathan Jones noted that "Sargent's fascination with the dress and style of the best people created some of the most haunting portraits of the modern world" and that the style and dress of his (in)famous Madame X portrait continues to influence fashion, fashion photography, and modern celebrity culture. In a 2008 article that featured thirteen leading actresses wearing Madame X-inspired black dresses, fashion critic Lauren Hubbard called Sargent's society portrait, "The painting that launched a thousand fashion designs".
The Grand Manner has had the greatest impact on national historical and cultural consciousness, defining for many what it meant to be British or American. It also greatly influenced 20th century fashion photography, as seen in the photographs of Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Annie Leibovitz. For her part, Cindy Sherman, in her "society portraits" (2008) revisits Grand Manner portraiture with a strong sense of irony. As art historian Paul Moorhouse wrote, "Pictured against backdrops that strain to convey an effect of history and substance [Sherman's] women pose for the camera in attitudes that strike a note of imperious, self-conscious importance. However, the ambiance they have fabricated and inhabit is, like the backdrops Sherman employs, strangely empty [...] Ornate, intricate and patterned their elegance is, nevertheless, ersatz".
- Joshua Reynolds was a preeminent 18-century English portrait painter and was also the first president of the British Royal Academy of Art.
- Thomas Gainsborough was an English portrait and landscape painter, as well as a founding member of the Royal Academy. Gainsborough's works were celebrated all over England; he was considered to be the preeminent British painter of his time.
- West took on the Neoclassical style and painted large-scale paintings that established his fame.
- The greatest American painter of the eighteenth century, Copley's his portraits helped mark America's "coming of age" as an independent nation.
- John Singer Sargent was the premiere portraitist of his generation, well-known for his depictions of high society figures in Paris, London, and New York. He updated a centuries-old tradition in order to capture his sitters' character and even reputation.
Do Not Miss
- Humanism, the focus on individuals, not the centrality of the church, and on a rediscovery of the humanities, powerfully influenced the art of the Renaissance.
- Classicism refers to the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome - a highly dynamic period that is at the root of most art.
- List of artists and the analysis of the work of the artists that practiced portraiture.
- The British Isles have been hosts to some of the most important art movements and have produced top modern and contemporary artists.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
First published on 16 Sep 2020. Updated and modified regularly