National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: British and American Grand Manner Portraits of the 1700s

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Eighteenth-century British artists and patrons used the terms "Grand Manner" or "Great Style" to describe paintings that utilized visual metaphors. By extension, the Grand Manner came to include portraiture—especially at full length and in life size—accompanied by settings and accessories that conveyed the dignified status of the sitters. Classical architecture, for instance, signified one's civilized demeanor, whole woodland glens implied natural sincerity.

The postures and gestures in Grand Manner portraits were often derived from ancient Roman sculpture or Italian Renaissance paintings. Another major precedent was early seventeenth-century English court portraiture by the two Flemish masters knighted by King Charles I, Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck. The connoisseur was expected to appreciate these artistic sources and their subtle references, just as educated readers were assumed to recognize authors' quotations form earlier literature.

Rivalry in the Royal Academy

At its annual exhibitions, London's Royal Academy of art permitted a few entries from students, independent artists, and foreigners. Life membership, however, was limited to no more than forty painters, sculptors, and architects. Such a small group of full academicians generated intense jealousy. English society, for instance, relished the rivalry between Sir Joshua Reynolds, knighted as the official court artist, and Thomas Gainsborough, whom all the royal family preferred to paint their portraits. Regardless of their different techniques and attitudes, both Reynolds and Gainsborough incorporated into their Grand Manner portraits the social symbolism expected by their clientele.

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