The golden age of English painting

From Reynolds to Turner, the masterpieces of Tate Britain are on display until February 16 at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. A must see!


Au musée du Luxembourg - Paris

The 1760s, the start of the reign of George III, marked a turning point in British art with the triumphant rise of Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), and saw the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, of which Reynolds was the first president. The renowned masters of portraiture, Reynolds and Gainsborough competed to raise the genre to new heights of visual and intellectual innovation. They paid tribute to the grand masters while demonstrating acute psychological insight and a command of painting that was always original.

Joshua Reynolds - L’Honorable Miss Monckton - 1777-1778 - Huile sur toile - Tate : légué par Sir Edward Stern en 1933 © Tate, London, 2019
Thomas Gainsborough - Gainsborough Dupont - vers 1770-1775 - Huile sur toile - Tate : légué par Lady d’Abernon en 1954 © Tate, London, 2019

The exhibition The golden age of English painting begins by juxtaposing these two painters through full-length portraits and intimate studies that bear a striking resemblance to public figures, members of the royal family and other important people. Here, Reynolds’ intellectual ambition and historical references contrast with Gainsborough’s immediacy and pictorial grace. Together, they redefined British art and inspired the new generation to new heights. Their lasting influence is then explored through a selection of major portraits painted by either their direct competitors or their disciples, most of whom were drawn to the new Royal Academy, among them John Hoppner, William Beechey and Thomas Lawrence. With the support of the king, and more importantly by key figures of trade and industry, British painting flourished into a host of different styles and was seen by contemporaries as the sign of a golden age for the arts.

George Stubbs - Un Hunter gris avec un palefrenier et un lévrier à Creswell Crags
vers 1762-1764 - Huile sur toile - Tate : acheté en 1895 © Tate, London, 2019
Joshua Reynolds - Le Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney : Les Archers - 1769 -Huile sur toile - 236 × 180 cm -Tate : acheté en 2005 grâce au soutien du National Heritage Memorial Fund, des membres de la Tate, de l’Art Fund (avec la contribution de la Wolfson Foundation) et d’autres donateurs © Tate, London, 2019

The next section will address themes that were in vogue at the time, such as lineage, family and the home, in the portraits and genre painting. This era saw the birth of a new interpretation of childhood, characterised by intimate tone and a championing of leisure. Representations of the family and childish innocence illustrate a new understanding of nature and emotion. The subsequent section develops this theme with a focus on paintings depicting everyday life, and rural life in particular. Major works by Gainsborough (in his preferred role of landscape painter), George Stubbs and George Morland reveal the new attention paid to the picturesque, while Reynolds’ extraordinary portrait, The Archers, uses the concept of wild nature to espouse a new heroic image of the British ruling class.

Joseph Mallord William Turner - Chamonix et le Mont Blanc, depuis les versants de Montenvers - vers 1802 - Mine de plomb, aquarelle et gouache sur papier - Tate : parvenu dans les collections nationales avec le legs Turner en 1856 - © Tate, London, 2019

A more focussed selection then illustrates the presence of Great Britain in India and the Caribbean, reminding us that the country’s artistic and cultural progress was essentially founded on the political and commercial exploitation of overseas territories. In parallel to this, a selection of works on paper demonstrates the remarkable rise of another form of pictorial expression in England, watercolour, which enabled many artists to attract attention while meeting the need for a new society of art-lovers.

John Martin - La Destruction de Pompéi et d’Herculanum - 1822 - Huile sur toile - Tate : Acheté en 1869 © Tate, London, 2019
Joseph Mallord William Turner - La Destruction de Sodome - Probablement exposé dans la galerie personnelle de Turner en 1805 - Huile sur toile - Tate : parvenu dans les collections nationales avec le legs Turner en 1856 - © Tate, London, 2019

As president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds set out new ambitions for British art, focused on historical painting, the only genre that could entirely fulfil an artist, even though he himself noted that patrons were rarely inclined to support this very noble form. However, portraits, landscapes and scenes of daily life prospered, and the true variety of British art in these fields seemed to be the product of a uniquely British prowess, free from rules and conventions. Nevertheless, historical painting did develop in Great Britain, undergoing a radical transformation during this period. The final part of the exhibition shows how British artists cultivated narrative figuration, raising it to the sublime. Works by Henri Fuseli, John Martin and P.J. De Loutherbourg, as well as the art of J.M.W. Turner, paved the way for a new vision of art as a medium for the imagination.
Décembre 2019
By Luxe Magazine