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18th century European art

by Robert Cumming

In this competition I have taken six works of art from the 18th century. Can you sort them by nationality?

Here are some broad guidelines.

British Art

The 18th century is the moment when British Art became of age. The father of British Art, William Hogarth (1699-1764) waged a lifelong campaign to establish a genuine national school and the institutions that would support it. Although his campaign never came to fruition in his lifetime he laid the foundations which enabled the next generation to fulfil his dreams. Reynolds (1723-1792) and Gainsborough (1727-1788) ushered in the great age of portraiture which was to last for over a century. Britain was emerging as the world leader politically, socially and economically and the nobility and middle classes wanted portraits of themselves and their families. But whatever the style of the portrait there is usually a down to earth pragmatism about the poses and the faces - these are people who get on with life and they make things happen. This is also the century when the British became a nation of collectors, returning home from abroad with quantities of treasures, principally Italian art. And towards the end of the century they established great skill in creating evocative and topographical landscapes, usually in watercolour, that represented their favourite visiting places at home and on Continental Europe.

French Art

The French were generally acknowledged to be the leaders in fashion and style throughout the 18th century. . In the first half of the century they were the masters of the Rococo style which emphasised elegance, youthfulness, lightness of touch in subject and execution, and the giving and receiving of pleasure - with themes of loves as the ultimate expression of all these qualities. Later in the century there was a reaction against this, and the Neo-Classical style introduced the contrary. Execution and content became severe. A moral and intellectual message, often derived from classical literature became desirable, and a highly polished style with an emphasis on clear, well defined line and precision in colour was the priority. This duality of cultured elegance and severe intellectual rigour represent, for me, two of the principal, and constant, defining characteristics of French national identity.

Italian Art

Italian Art looked back to the great achievements of the Renaissance and in some respects in the 18th century there was an "Indian Summer" in which, although they knew that they were in their autumn artistically, they managed to retain and recapture some of the brilliance of High Summer of the Renaissance. This gives their art something of an unreal and even nostalgic character. Stylistically their art often has a bravura and pleasingly "over the top" quality, and for me they often seem to be more taken by the wish to create eye catching decoration than to spell out a message with any deep content. They also had an eye to the market. Aware that Italy was a magnet for the British Grand Tourists, artistic such as Canaletto produced high-class tourist souvenirs for them to buy and take home. And artists such as Canaletto, Tiepolo and Bellotto travelled abroad to take make their talents available to their overseas clients in their home territories.

Spanish Art

Spanish Art seems often to go its own way, taking what it wants from other nations and distilling it into something that is inexplicably interwoven with their own temperament and times. There is often a brooding, mysterious and rather dark quality in Spanish art. Whether it be portraits or narratives, there is often an air of introspection which dwells on the deeper and sometimes melancholy or grotesque workings of the human mind and human behaviour. It was well expressed by the writer V S Pritchett who travelled in Spain in the 1930s and memorably said that Spaniards seem to talk either about themselves or about the universe: rarely, if ever, do they talk about anything in between.