British Painting

During the 18th and 19th centuries, young members of the British upper classes extended their education with the Grand Tour of continental Europe. There they were introduced to a sophisticated level of artistic achievement that influenced their tastes as adult art patrons. To ensure such high standards in the visual arts, the Royal Academy opened in London in 1769; until the 1800s virtually every major artist in Britain was elected a member or, at least, submitted work for its annual exhibitions.

The history of British painting is intimately linked with the broader traditions of European painting. Kings and queens commissioned portraits from German, Dutch, and Flemish artists. Holbein, Van Dyck, and other eminent foreign portraitists imparted an aura of perfection even to the most insipid of their sitters. British painters found inspiration and guidance from their journeys abroad, in Italy especially.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century, English artists began to develop their own styles in marine and allegorical painting. In William Hogarth's satirical and moralizing scenes of contemporary life one senses the evolution of a new and inherently British idiom. Emphatically propounding the Englishness of his art, Hogarth promoted an academy for the arts, the predecessor of the Royal Academy of Arts. The latter was founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose influential Discourses stressed the preeminence of history painting. Ironically, perhaps the key figure in the development of English history painting was the American-born Benjamin West, who became the second president of the Royal Academy after Reynolds' death. Other American painters, such as John Singleton Copley, followed West's example and relocated to London. Copley became one of the most celebrated artists of the day and painter to the king.

The late eighteenth century saw a growing interest in landscape painting. Some artists, such as Richard Wilson, painted idealized scenes imbued with the spirit of the classical past, while others, such as Joseph Wright of Derby, pursued more individual and personal visions of the natural world. Thomas Gainsborough, although known best for his fashionable portraits, painted highly imaginative landscapes and seascapes that relate to no specific time or place.

The great flowering of English landscape painting came during the first half of the nineteenth century, primarily in the works of two masters, John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. Constable's true-to-life views of the English countryside expressed romantic ideals about the essential harmony and purity of nature. Turner, on the other hand, was a romantic who sought to project the way in which sun, fire, smoke, wind, and water affected and transformed the physical world. With their fresh vision and powerfully original styles, Constable and Turner profoundly influenced the work not only of many subsequent British painters, but of countless American and European artists as well.