The Georgian Era
The Georgian Era is a period of British history spanning the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings of Great Britain, aptly named George I, George II, George III, and George IV. The Georgian period from 1714-1830 saw great innovation, marked most notably by the inception of the Industrial Revolution, the expansion of the British Empire, and a flowering of literary and visual arts and architecture.
Neoclassicism + Romanticism
Generally, fine art of the Georgian Period may be categorized within the art historical periods of Neoclassicism or Romanticism. Massively popular during the second half of the 18th century, Neoclassicism is heavily influenced by classical antiquity, particularly the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. The success of this movement may be credited, at least in part, to the popularity of the Grand Tour, a traditional trip of Europe taken by wealthy young Englishmen, as well as the emerging science of archaeology, led by the British antiquarian John Aubrey. Neoclassical paintings and decorative arts usually emphasize formal composition (often straightforward and rigid), depict historical subject matter and underscore monumentality, either figuratively or in literal scale.
Romanticism, on the other hand, rejected the rational ideals of the Enlightenment and instead focused on the uncontrollable, unpredictable force of nature. You can see these design elements within Georgian furniture, jewelry, and a number of different elements in decorative arts. With heavy emphasis placed upon emotion and imagination, paintings in the Romantic style are marked by evocative brushstrokes and an overall sense of drama.
The Four Greats
The Georgian Era saw a new group of native English painters whose works rivaled those of great masters throughout the continent. The status of English painting was further bolstered by the founding of the Royal Academy, an institution that provided both instruction and a formal platform for curated exhibitions, in 1768. From this new generation of artists, four painters stand out as truly exceptional: Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, J.M.W. Turner, and John Constable.
Chief among Georgian Era artists was Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who was the first president of the Royal Academy and served as principal painter to George III. He is remembered both as the author of the highly influential Discourses on Art and as a master portraitist.
Of equal, if not greater, acclaim was Reynold’s rival Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Gainsborough was a naturalist painter widely sought after for his sophisticated, fluid portraits but whose passion in life was landscape painting. Upon Gainsborough’s death in 1788, his rival Reynolds stated, “If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honorable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name.” Indeed, Gainsborough is today considered the founder of the English school of landscape painting.
Credited with bringing British painting into the modern age, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837) were champions of Romanticism. Both artists devoted their artistic careers, although using divergent techniques, to landscape painting. And perhaps most importantly, each artist developed his own approach to depicting the relationship between nature and light—an idea that would become a pillar of the French Impressionist movement during the following century.
This blog post is the first of a three-part series which explores the flowering of the arts during the Georgian Era (1714-1830) and serves as a supplement to “House of Hanover: The Georgian Collection” currently on display at M.S. Rau Antiques.