National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Mannerism
Overview

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The term mannerism describes the style of the paintings and bronze sculpture on this tour. Derived from the Italian maniera, meaning simply “style,” mannerism is sometimes defined as the “stylish style” for its emphasis on self-conscious artifice over realistic depiction. The sixteenth-century artist and critic Vasari—himself a mannerist—believed that excellence in painting demanded refinement, richness of invention, and virtuoso technique, criteria that emphasized the artist’s intellect. More important than his carefully recreated observation of nature was the artist’s mental conception and its elaboration. This intellectual bias was, in part, a natural consequence of the artist’s new status in society. No longer regarded as craftsmen, painters and sculptors took their place with scholars, poets, and humanists in a climate that fostered an appreciation for elegance, complexity, and even precocity.

Mannerism’s artificiality—its bizarre, sometimes acid color, its illogical compression of space, the elongated proportions and exaggerated anatomy of figures in convoluted, serpentine poses—frequently creates a feeling of anxiety. Works appear strange and unsettling, despite their superficial naturalism. Mannerism coincided with a period of upheaval that was torn by the Reformation, plague, and the devastating sack of Rome. After its inception in central Italy around 1520, mannerism spread to other regions of Italy and to northern Europe. In Italy, however, it remained largely a product of artists in Florence and Rome.

The character of mannerism continues to be debated. It is often discussed, and judged, in relation to the High Renaissance that preceded it. Some scholars see mannerism as a reaction to Renaissance classicism, while others regard it as a logical extension of it—a natural outgrowth of Michelangelo’s emphatic modeling or Raphael’s refinement. Already in 1600, mannerists were criticized for having willfully broken the unity of Renaissance classicism, its integration of form and content, its balance of aesthetic aims and ideas. Today, when classicism no longer has a unique claim on “perfection,” mannerism emerges more clearly as a link between the High Renaissance and the emotionally charged and dynamic baroque art that followed.

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