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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The early 18th century saw the fading away of the Baroque era, and the push towards a new direction in European art, including the Romanticism and Neoclassicism art movements.

Europe in the 18th century has often been termed as the Age of Enlightenment. This era is remembered for a development in science, politics and philosophy, fuelled by a renewed focus on reason. This new direction caused artists to move away from the extravagance of the Baroque period, shifting to its Rococo phase, before it drifted away into the realms of art history.

The Age of Enlightenment is generally believed to have lasted from around the late 17th century to the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, during which time European society would change considerably.

Rococo Art, with its Playful and Whimsical Depictions

The first half of the 18th century saw the rise of the Rococo movement, which many referred to as the Late Baroque. It was an exceptionally elaborate artistic style which began in France and took in a number of artistic and architectural disciplines, including furniture design and tapestry.

The Rococo approach often made use of pastel tones and provided charming scenes, incorporating a sense of fun and humor. The variations in lighting were more restrained than in previous stages of the Baroque and this period would contribute major names such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), François Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806).

The Rococo era captured the essence of French design, with a flamboyance that ran unhindered by rules or restrictions. Views on its style was polarized, with many of the public appreciating its excessive flourishes of creativity, whilst others deemed it to be illogical and superficial.

Its impact within furniture, ceramics and clock design has retained its popularity more than its contribution to painting, with many of its most famous painters having fallen out of fashion with art historians in recent times.

Neoclassical Painting: Revival of Classical Ideals

As a direct reaction to the excesses of the Rococo, there would be a return to more traditional values through the Neoclassical cultural movement. Simplicity and structure would now be the order of the day, and this method seemed ideally suited to the discipline of architecture, where it became prominent.

It was in the early 1760s that we saw the first signs of Neoclassicism, just as the last embers of the Baroque were fading away. Several decades later, Romanticism would appear, and the two would compete against each other for dominance of European art in the second half of the 17th century. Neoclassicism, as suggested in its name, marked a return to influences from classical antiquity, in combination with more modern technical practices.

The leading exponents within this movement included Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) as well as Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) who combined elements of Neoclassicism with a more restrained use of Rococo.

Initially, some artists used Raphael as inspiration, due to the lack of classical paintings available from ancient Greece and Rome, but the arrival of Jacques-Louis David would breathe new life into this movement, providing excitement and drama which replaced the reproduction of old ways with a sense of innovation. David soon led the way within French art circles, and one of his pupils, Ingres (1780-1867), was able to continue this line of success into later generations.

Whilst the Rococo style had started to be seen as vulgar and unrestrained by some, the rise of the Neoclassical era was also brought about by the discovery of the Roman ruins of Pompeii as well as a 1764 publication on the history of ancient art by German scholar Winckelmann, both of which reminded Europeans of the many strengths that classical art and design had to offer.

In terms of sculpture, Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was the most revered exponent in this medium, though he also instilled some of the emotion found in the Baroque era into his work.

French and German Romanticism: Emotion and Individualism

At a time of political and societal instability in Europe, the late 18th century would witness the rise of an art movement famed for its visual display of emotion, namely Romanticism. It offered something different to the rise of Neoclassicism art, allowing an ease of expression and an exploration of imagination, whilst drawing considerable influence from European literature.

France and Germany would be the main centers of this movement, giving us the likes of Eugene Delacroix, Theodore Gericault and Caspar David Friedrich, whilst it would also reach the shores of England in the form of landscape painting.

Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People remains the best example of the era of Romanticism, depicting the French Revolution in an emotionally charged setting. Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, also indicated how a romantic view of the natural landscape could improve upon reality, when incorporating the emotions of the artist.

The literature of William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would remind visual artists of the importance of emotion, and convince them to use it as inspiration for their own work, be it figurative or landscape art. William Blake would go one step further and actually produce poetry, paintings and sketches which spread across the breadth of Romanticism, marking him out as an unusually gifted individual.

He avoided the traditional routes of academic artistic education and perhaps this helped him to retain a unique nature to his work, as well as allowing him to make use of whatever art mediums piqued his interest, rather than being led into the same formal routes as everyone else. In terms of Romanticism’s focus on emotion over reason, European art had now gone full circle from the Baroque, through to Neoclassicism and onto this new approach which would last until the mid 19th century.

Whilst Romanticism would fade away in the middle of the next century, there were a number of offshoots from it which continued on afterwards, such as the the Arts and Crafts movement, the Symbolism movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Düsseldorf school of painting. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, continued the use of literature as inspiration for their work and this particular style has retained a huge popularity in the present day, with many believing that it perfectly captures the essence of British historical culture.

British Landscape Masters: Depictions of the Countryside

Having absorbed some of the finest European artists in previous centuries who had been imported by Britain’s growing selection of prominent collectors, it was now time for some home-grown talent to come to the fore. Landscape art offered some quintessentially British, capturing the stunning and unique environment found on this historic island.

This was made possible following the advances made by others in establishing landscape art as a genre of its own, such as French painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) who achieved success in Italy. Initially, the style would be fairly precise, depicting the reality of the British countryside, with the likes of Richard Wilson (1714-1787) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) rising to prominence.

Gainsborough himself was also a great master of portraiture, alongside Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), and the Suffolk-born painter would also sometimes fuse the two genres together, as seen in the classic work, Mr and Mrs Andrews from circa 1750.

The British landscape masters would also bring an identity to their particular regions of the island, capturing the variations found between Scotland, Wales, and the north and south of England. Examples found within that included depictions of castles, ruins, lush green fields, winding rivers and towering mountains.

Artists of the 18th century would also focus on capturing the variations brought about by the changing seasons, and the way in which this would impact the same environment at different times of the year. As interest in this body of work gained favor in mainland Europe, knowledge of the beauty of the British countryside would spread far and wide.

British art from 1780 to 1830 was dominated by the Romanticism era, which would also greatly impact literature. Emotion would once again return to British oil painting, though this time the main focus would be in landscape art, which essentially took the achievements in this genre from earlier in the century and imposed a new and exciting expression directly from the artist’s soul.

Turner (1775-1851) and Constable (1776-1837) would spearhead this movement, and their popularity in France would help bring about later styles such as the Impressionists, with Monet (1840-1926) himself known to be a key admirer of their work. There were also history paintings by the likes of Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), James Barry (1741-1806) and John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-1779), plus the unique combination of poetry and illustration by the unique talent of William Blake (1757-1827).