Ingres, Large Odalisque, 1814
BRITISH
AND
AMERICAN ART
IN THE
LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
The Royal Academy in London had a somewhat different purpose than its French equivalent. It was
primarily a teaching institution sponsoring annual exhibits open to all artists, not just its own members. The
British academy was not controlled by the government, and there was much less emphasis on the hierarchy
of genres, which ranked history painting above all other types. The first president of the British academy
was Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose best-known works are portraits that were influenced by van Dyck. Reynolds
did much to raise the status of the arts in England, and in the discourses he delivered to the academy, he
explained his theory of art. He wanted art to rise above the mere recording of natural appearances to attain
a greater idealism and beauty. He definitely thought the classical style was the best model for sculpture,
but with painting, Reynolds’ taste was much more eclectic—he admired the Romans and the Venetians,
Poussin and Rubens. His portraits show robust strength as well as moody color and loose brushwork.
American painting in the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries was largely the work of itinerant,
self-taught artists called limners. These painters served the needs of colonial families with simple paintings
of family members and occasionally landscapes or other subjects. Many of these paintings have a directness
and abstract quality that appeals greatly to modern viewers, but it contrasts greatly with the style of
painting in England at the time.
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