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Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
Medieval Europe
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Renaissance in Europe
The High Renaissance
16th century in Europe
17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
     French delicacies
     Venetian sunset
     Hogarth and the English scene
     British portraits
     British watercolours

To be completed

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French delicacies: 1713-1789

There is a sudden lightening of the tone in French society in the second decade of the 18th century. The treaty of Utrecht, concluding the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, seems to promise the end of the almost continuous warfare which has characterized the long reign of Louis XIV. And the death of the king himself, in 1715, offers possible liberation from the stifling formality which has been the mark of his court.

In these same years a young artist, Antoine Watteau, is producing paintings which suggest a new social mood.


The people whom Watteau depicts are rich and glamorous in their silks and satins, but they seem extremely relaxed as they busy themselves with social pleasures in romantic woodland settings. They chat with the clowns and guitarists who entertain them in these fêtes galantes (amorous festivities) as freely as one would in an open-air party today.

The painterly skill with which Watteau captures such fragile moments is seen at its best in his last work, the large Enseigne de Gersaint. Painted as a shop sign for his friend Gersaint (in just eight mornings in 1721, when Watteau is mortally ill), it shows elegant Parisians inspecting the dealer's paintings and mirrors.


These people are all set to enjoy themselves and for the rest of the century, in Europe's most sophisticated kingdom, they do just that - until the shock of 1789.

Two younger artists reflect and satisfy this mood. François Boucher is born in 1703, Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a generation younger. Both produce the romantic landscapes and the titillating boudoir scenes which suit the market of the day. Boucher is at the erotic end of the spectrum in his portrayal of the young Louise O'Murphy sprawling naked on a sofa. Fragonard provides the sentimental touch in an image such as Le Souvenir, showing a slender girl in exquisite silks who carves an initial on the trunk of a tree, closely observed by her spaniel.


Fragonard lives on into the stern days of the French Revolution, when his frivolously elegant art becomes politically incorrect. He dies in poverty in 1806. But there is one French artist, of equal delicacy in his use of paint, who would have been warmly welcomed by the revolutionaries if he had not died (at the age of eighty) in 1779. He is Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

Chardin's subjects are unfashionable - most often just domestic servants going quietly about their business, among gleaming copper utensils. But his treatment of them has a profound honesty. And the paint sings. Chardin is one of those rare geniuses where the art is itself both the mystery and the joy.


Venetian sunset: 18th century

In the last century of Venice's independence the city's painters recover the esteem enjoyed by their predecessors in the 16th century. This is true in particular of the last great artist to work in fresco.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is born in Venice in 1696. The major influence on his life is Veronese, whose example he follows in tackling detailed and complex historical scenes. In keeping with the Rococo spirit of the age, and with fresco as his preferred medium, Tiepolo brings to these pictorial pageants a light palette and a visible deftness of touch - and in doing so provides some of the most exhilarating images in the whole of 18th-century art.


Tiepolo first finds his characteristic style in the frescoes which he paints in 1726-8 for the archbishop's palace in Udine. In Venice his greatest surviving series is that of Antony and Cleopatra in the Palazzo Labia. But Tiepolo's outstanding achievement is his decoration of the prince-bishop's palace (the Residenz) at Würzburg.

The building, designed by Balthasar Neumann and completed in 1744, is on the cusp between baroque and rococo. The great staircase and the central hall present Tiepolo with difficult and challenging surfaces which he fills, between 1751 and 1753, with superb scenes. They celebrate, with a very Venetian flourish, the glories of Germany's imperial past.


Tiepolo spends his last years on a similarly patriotic task in another country - providing a ceiling on the theme of The Triumph of Spain for the throne room of the royal palace in Madrid. Meanwhile, in the prosperous 18th century and the heyday of the Grand Tour, rich tourists are flocking to Venice. It is they who promote the final chapter of Venetian painting.

Canaletto is born in Venice in 1697. In 1720 he begins to specialize in views of the city, and two years later wins his first commission from an English visitor. Thereafter the English become his chief patrons, partly thanks to the encouragement of Joseph Smith (the British consul in Venice and a keen collector of Canaletto).


Canaletto lives in England from 1746 to 1755, painting views of the Thames in London and of his aristocratic patrons' country seats. His practice of painting large topographical views is continued by his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who leaves Venice in 1747 and thereafter works mainly in Dresden and Vienna.

In Venice, from about 1760, the demand of the tourists for views is met at a simpler and cheaper level by Francesco Guardi. His small canvases, more vague and informal than Canaletto's topographical studies, are notable for the ease and delicacy with which Venice's watery landscape is suggested.


Hogarth and the English scene: 1728-1764

The first English painter on a grand scale is also the most English of painters. Hogarth observes London life with the keenest of eyes, and makes his main contribution by presenting the bustling scene in vivid narrative paintings.

His first great success is a picture in 1728 of the stage of the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre during a performance of John Gay's Beggar's Opera, the smash hit of the day (over the next three years he paints several versions of the same picture). In 1731 Hogarth completes the six paintings which make up A Harlot's Progress, the first of his very successful narrative sequences in which a contemporary moral tale is told as if in a series of satirical scenes on a stage.


Hogarth engraves a version of the Harlot's Progress himself (his original trade is engraving) and publishes the six plates with great success in 1732. In this combination of narrative satirical paintings, followed by the publication of a set of engravings, Hogarth finds his natural medium. Subsequent series are A Rake's Progress (1735), Marriage à la Mode (1742-4) and The Election (1754).

From the 1730s Hogarth also paints portraits. They tend to have a delightfully rough informality (such as the infants of the Grey family in 1740, cheerfully tormenting a puppy) or a sturdy masculinity (Captain Coram of the same year). But by this time a painter of more elegant portraits, Allan Ramsay, has set up shop in London.


British portraits: 1739-1830

Allan Ramsay, born in Edinburgh in 1713, studies in Rome and Naples during the 1730s before opening a studio in London in 1739 (together with another in Edinburgh). He brings to British portraiture a delicacy previously lacking, as seen to brilliant effect in his 1759 portrait of his wife (now in the National Gallery of Scotland).

By the 1750s Ramsay has a younger rival, of considerable skill and soaring ambition, with whom he finds it hard to compete. Joshua Reynolds, who establishes himself in London in 1753 after two years in Italy, has a high notion of the dignity of art and the artist. He is the natural first president of the Royal Academy, when it is founded in 1768, and he endows his sitters with an equivalent sense of importance.


Reynolds often paints his subjects full length, in splendid poses and in close proximity to a classical column or urn. These are the sort of people who go on the Grand Tour. Their easy self-confidence in Reynolds's canvases revives the great tradition of the English portraits of van Dyck.

If anything is missing in these powerful images by Reynolds, it is perhaps the fleeting quality of fashion - a quality abundantly supplied by his slightly younger rival Thomas Gainsborough. When Gainsborough catches William and Elizabeth Hallett on their Morning Walk (in London's National Gallery), the couple may not have the air of lasting importance which Reynolds would give them; but on this particular morning there is no one to match them.


Gainsborough maintains a studio in fashionable Bath from 1759 to 1774, and then moves to London. The rich English gentry who pose in town for him and for Reynolds have country seats where they are intensely interested in horses. These splendid animals also deserve a good portrait. England has just the man in George Stubbs.

Stubbs's wonderfully calm and elegant images of sleek horses with their grooms, huntsmen or jockeys in neatly tailored landscapes, or of conversation pieces with the family sitting proud and upright in their carriages, are in their own way as significant a part of the portraiture of prosperous 18th-century England as the work of Reynolds and Gainsborough.


The generation after Reynolds, Gainsborough and Stubbs produces two artists who round off in dramatic style the great period of British portrait painting. Henry Raeburn stays almost exclusively north of the border in Scotland, usually depicting his sitters in dramatic lighting against dark sketchy backgrounds. His striking image of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (early 1790s) is Scotland's most famous painting but is untypical.

Thomas Lawrence, the youngest of this group, is also the most flamboyant and free in the brilliant facility of his brush strokes. As Holbein immortalizes Henry VIII, so Lawrence does the same for the prince regent, or George IV. He and his most famous subject die in the same year, 1830.


Neoclassicism: 18th - 19th century

Ever since the Renaissance, successive generations of artists and architects have turned to classical models for inspiration. Even at the height of baroque (the least classical of styles in mood or line) contemporary grandees are often depicted in togas. Military heroes, however foolish they may look, strutt in the stiff ribbed kilt of the Roman legionary.

During the 18th century a quest for classical authenticity is undertaken with new academic vigour. There are several reasons. Archaeological sites such as Pompeii are being excavated. And interest is shifting from the Roman part of the classical heritage to the Greek.


Ancient Greek sites in southern Italy (in particular Paestum) and in Sicily begin to be studied in the 1740s. In 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German archaeologist and a key figure in the Greek Revival, publishes a work on Greek painting and sculpture in which he argues that the art of Greece provides the best example of ideal beauty.

The avant-garde greets this notion with enthusiasm. Over the next century Greek themes increasingly pervade the decorative arts. Greek porticos and colonnades grace public buildings. Greek refinement becomes the ideal for neoclassical sculptors and painters.


The effect of the Greek Revival on painters includes a new emphasis on the importance of line, deriving from the figures on Greek vases and in low-relief friezes. It also results in a great increase in the number of subjects selected from Greek mythology and literature.

Many of these neoclassical artists treat their ancient themes with a wispy sentimentality, more in keeping with their own time than with Greece or Rome. This is true of the French artist who pioneers the style in the 1750s, Joseph-Marie Vien. The charge can also be laid against the most energetic neoclassical painter working in Britain, Benjamin West. But an entirely new rigour is introduced by Vien's best pupil, Jacques-Louis David.


British watercolours: 18th - 19th century

In 1771 the topographical artist Paul Sandby sets off with a wealthy patron for a tour of Wales. Sandby's job is to sketch the magnificent scenery, now coming into fashion with the beginning of the Romantic movement. This new interest will be popularized a decade later by the Rev. William Gilpin, an indefatigable pilgrim in pursuit of the picturesque who publishes accounts of his own sketching tours, beginning with Observations on the River Wye, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1782).

Watercolour is the natural medium for sketches of this kind. The passion for the picturesque therefore lies behind the development of the most distinctively British strand in art history - that of the landscape watercolour.


The use of watercolour as the occasional medium for a rapid sketch goes back as far as Dürer, and many artists in the 17th century use monochrome wash drawings as studies for paintings. The difference in Britain in the 18th century is that specialists emerge who paint watercolours for their patrons (and later for a wider market) and in many cases restrict their work to this one medium.

This development coincides with a fortunate new discovery in printmaking, that of the aquatint - which for the first time can provide in printed form something very close to the tones of a wash drawing. Again Paul Sandby is a pioneer. His Welsh trips result in the publication, in 1776-7, of thirty-six Views in Aquatinta taken on the Spot in Wales.


Soon British watercolour artists are travelling abroad to bring back views from regions such as the Alps which have scenery even more picturesque than Wales can provide. In a nice paradox, classical ruins in Italy are also now found to be romantic.

From the start very individual styles emerge among these artists. Many attempt a neat topographical precision, particularly in subjects such as ruins. Others go for much bolder effects. John Robert Cozens, touring in Switzerland and Italy in 1776, brings back wonderfully misty and evocative images. Francis Towne, in the same regions in 1781, turns landscape into simple blocks of wash so bold that the effect is almost abstract.


Other leading watercolourists who develop their own personal vision of the British landscape include Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, David Cox and Peter de Wint. Vision tips over into visionary in the richly intimate views painted by Samuel Palmer at Shoreham in Kent (under the influence of William Blake, a master of watercolour in his own visionary scenes).

One figure above all personifies the development of the watercolour in England. Turner in his twenties paints brilliantly in the detailed topographical style. Later in his life he produces bright shimmering washes as bold as his large canvases of the same period. Constable says that they seem to be painted 'with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy'.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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