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Monday, July 4, 2011

The Grand Manner

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784,
Gilbert Stuart
In England in the early 1800s there existed a style of painting called "The Grand Manner" characterized by the work of  Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy. In effect, it was the British equivalent of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. The list of Americans studying under Reynolds reads like a who's who of American painting including Charles Wilson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Ralph Earl, John Trumbull, Washington Allston, Rembrandt Peale, Charles Bird King, Thomas Sully, and Samuel F.B. Morse. While there was no concerted effort amongst them, their general hope was to have American art receive the mantle of the European painting tradition and raise it to new heights of excellence.

The Artist in His Museum, 1822,
Charles Wilson Peale
Several of these artist set up studios in London and were quite successful before retuning to this country where their success stories varied greatly. Those like Allston, Morse, and others who tried to carry on the tradition of grandiose subject matter involving history painting, mythological tales, or enormous canvases even with American subject matter, were only moderately successful, at best.  Often upon return to the U.S. their careers went into rapid decline. Few in America, even among the educated elite, understood such high-minded feasts of intellectual manna from the gods. However, those artists who chose to use the technical prowess they'd obtained in London, and were not above painting the mainstay of American art at the time, the portrait, were often quite successful.

Among these "Grand Manner" portrait painters were the Peales, Charles Wilson and his son Rembrandt, who were at the heart of America's first art dynasty in and around Philadelphia during the first half of the century. Thomas Sully injected a Romantic element into his portraits while John Trumbull tried his hand at architecture as well as painting. In New York, though without much success, he tried to establish an American version of the Royal Academy called the National Academy of Design. But most successful of all was Gilbert Stuart. He became something of an icon of American portraiture by whipping out paintings of the Presidents and other statesmen at an astounding rate, completing the faces in as little as two hours, often without so much as a preliminary drawing.
The Declaration of Independence, 1795, John Trumbull

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