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The Rococo Influence in British Art

Although the Rococo movement never got a foothold on British soil, English artists still felt its influence like a fresh breeze from across the English Channel. Without becoming flamboyant, a new, lighter look infused English art. The two leading British painters of the period, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, were both influenced by French Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau as well as Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists and Dutch and Flemish painting. The third great 18th-century British painter was William Hogarth.

William Hogarth

The woodblock prints of William Hogarth (1697–1764) caricature upper-class Englishmen. Hogarth was one of the few artists of the period who used his talent to critique and mock the upper classes: their excesses, extravagance, and moral depravity. He had trained to become an engraver and later switched to painting. But the engraver in him never died. In fact, he made engravings of some of his paintings so he could sell multiple copies of them. Smart guy.

Hogarth's paintings look like theater pieces — in this case, comedies of manners. He created series of paintings that tell stories like cartoon strips; each painting is a chapter in the story. His first moral painting series is called A Harlot's Progress. It was a sensation. The series chronicles the conversion of a country bumpkin into a city prostitute and follows her gradual decline. Hogarth even depicts the woman's horrid death and funeral — as a moral lesson.

He followed this series with a second hit, The Rake's Progress. This painted story follows the moral collapse of Tom Rakewell. In one of the episodes, The Orgy, Tom drinks himself into a stupor at a brothel. Though a prostitute caresses his chest, he looks too nauseated to notice. In the dark background, a servant holding out a candle looks on aghast at the scene. The final painting in the series finds Tom Rakewell in a lunatic asylum.

Although Hogarth's paintings and engravings are intended to be moral lessons, his art never feels preachy. Each painting brims with entertaining and often humorous details.

Thomas Gainsborough

The paintings of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) have perfect manners. Everything and everyone is in its proper place. His specialty was portraits of English gentry and aristocrats and wholesome English landscapes.

He began as a landscape painter but found that painting portraits was more profitable. Even so, Gainsborough never abandoned landscape painting. He often placed his country ladies and gents in the sedate English countryside. For example, in his great portrait Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, housed at the National Gallery in London, Gainsborough poses the elegantly dressed Andrews couple in a beautiful late-day, countryscape. Mrs. Andrews, attired in a blue taffeta dress and pointed, pink velvet slippers, looks like she's ready to go to the opera, yet she's at ease in her rural surroundings. Mr. Andrews, with his trusty English Whippet at his side, appears ready for a foxhunt. But his elegant white jacket and white hose aren't up for a rustic jaunt. As rural gentry, they're very much in their element. Yet they've obviously never lifted a hoe. They own the land, but they don't work it. In fact, the landscape looks like it's been tamed by his gun and her dress. To facilitate their comfort, Gainsborough planted an ornate wrought-iron bench in the midst of the meadow. The bench on which the lady perches and on which the man leans further separates them from the landscape that they dominate.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) brought Italy to England. He'd studied in Rome from 1750 to 1752 and then taken the Grand Tour of Italy. Highly influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and the Mannerist Giulio Romano, he imported what he called the "great style" to England. As the first president of the Royal Academy of Art, Reynolds helped shape artistic tastes throughout Great Britain.

Reynolds hoped to bring Italian subject matter to England, too — in particular, mythological and historical painting. But British tastes inclined toward portraiture; 16th- and 17th-century foreign painters who'd worked in England, like Hans Holbein and Anthony van Dyck, focused on portraits, helping foster a taste for that kind of painting.

So like his rival Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds painted portraits. The most striking difference in their styles is in how they posed their models and embedded them in their surroundings. Gainsborough's models sit like they're posing for their picture between sips of tea; the background is just that — background. The sitters don't interact with it. The figures in Reynolds's portraits are almost always active and dramatically or poetically wedded to the landscape.

Reynolds incorporated the landscapes he found in Italian art into his portraits of English lords and ladies, especially after 1760. Often, he placed English women in Italianesque settings accented with a Greek column or bust or a Roman arch or relief. Frequently, the ladies wear flowing Roman gowns and make grand or poetic gestures. Reynolds was so inspired by Romano that he actually borrowed poses and even figures from his paintings. He said, "Genius . . . is the child of imitation."

Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Reynolds did create a world-class English School of painting as Reynolds had hoped. The next great school of English artists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, built on their achievements, primarily by rebelling against the aesthetics of Reynolds.

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