The Influence of Italy

 

By Helen Tope

 

The work of Italian artists had a marked effect on the British art scene and painters such as Joshua Reynolds in the 1700s. A new exhibition at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery investigates the influence of Italy on our own art heritage.

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Earlier this month, I visited Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery to see their latest acquisition. In an exhibition titled ‘The Influence of Italy’, we get to see a Joshua Reynolds’ sketchbook dating from 1750-52, containing drawings from his time spent in Italy.

As an apprentice, Reynolds studied Italian painting extensively; with his mentor Thomas Hudson introducing him to art from the Renaissance. Reynolds was familiar with the work from all the big names: Tintoretto, Titian, Raphael – but for a developing artist, seeing reproductions was no substitute for seeing the real thing. The decision to visit Italy proved to be a pivotal moment in Joshua Reynolds’ career.

Travelling across Europe to see examples of classical and Renaissance art was a rite of passage for 18th century artists. Reynolds arrived in Florence (in 1750) before heading to Rome, spending a great deal of time sketching in the Vatican. Exposed to the chill of the Vatican’s expansive grounds took its toll on the Plymouth-born artist, who incurred permanent hearing damage as a result. But Italy was not wasted on Reynolds. Joshua took it all in: focusing in particular on the artists’ compositional techniques and their bold use of colour. He made diagrams of how the Venetian painter Tintoretto used light and shade in his compelling portraits, exploring his use of chiaroscuro over and over again.

Sketchbook of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1750 – 1752. © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

The Renaissance artists’ methods of using colour proved to be a game-changing influence on Reynolds. Far from being flat and one-dimensional, they used contemporary materials to their advantage: Titian in his most famous painting, ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ (1523), was one of the first artists to use the (very expensive) ultramarine pigment, which gives the painting its blazing blue sky.

The richness of colour used in Renaissance art galvanised Reynolds. Joshua furiously sketched as he travelled across Italy, stopping off in Venice, Bologna and Perugia, capturing details of statues and paintings. From more detailed studies to sketches dashed off in moments; Reynolds could analyse and work at lightning speed – strong, broad strokes of pencil mark the sketchbook to create a suggestion of movement and space. The energy is what really jumps out at you – it is clear looking at these sketches that Reynolds was a man inspired.

Rather than copy each detail faithfully, Reynolds took what he wanted from the Old Masters, borrowing what was needed to improve and further his own work. He even slotted together sketches from several pieces to build his own artistic language.

His experimentation with shading, borrowed from the Old Masters, proved especially important in Reynolds’ creative development. We tend to think of Old Masters’ work as being very detailed, almost laboured, but the greats used paint sparingly, as they evolved their craft, allowing the eye to fill in the rest (Spanish painter Diego Velazquez was particularly gifted at this technique). This bold approach, fresh to Reynolds’ 18th century perspective, helped him approach his work differently, in turn introducing a lightness to British painting after his trip to Italy.

As I scanned through the sketchbook, it was interesting to see how many of Reynolds’ drawings are so lightly drawn, giving the merest suggestion of the original artwork. Reynolds did not copy line for line, choosing instead to focus on what was of interest to him at the time.

You can see this for yourself in Reynolds’ sketch based on ‘Saint Margaret of Antioch’ by Guido Reni (1575-1642). The beautifully-observed elegance and drapery of the gown worn by Saint Margaret, echoes Reynolds’ later society portraits. In the Renaissance original, the gentle folds of her dress are so carefully evoked that you can almost hear the fabric rustling as it puckers and creases.

Sketchbook of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1750 – 1752. © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

This is a theme that Reynolds returned to several times in his sketchbooks – perfecting and rehearsing – his sketch of a sitting woman uses a deft handling of light and shade to capture the physicality of the fabric as it catches the light. Reynolds lived in an age where clothes really did make the man (and woman) – getting those details right was not only crucial from an artistic standpoint, but essential in signifying Reynolds’ sitter and their status in the world. In the circles of the 18th century British aristocracy, there was no such thing as just a sleeve. Reynolds and his contemporary, Thomas Gainsborough, had the portrait business sewn up between them – Gainsborough was a society, blue-blood favourite while Reynolds painted famous faces, starting a cult of celebrity. You can see Reynolds’ delight in portraiture in the sketchbooks, where a sketch of a chubby-legged infant offers up the artist’s humour in spades.  The child’s impish expression is gorgeously irresistible – Reynolds challenges you to look away.

Reynolds’ skill in creating great faces, on his return to Britain, was well-timed: the landscapes popular in the 17th century were giving way to a contemporary craze for portraiture. Although Reynolds was chiefly inspired by the Old Masters, he was an admirer of more recent talents such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The influence of their psychological portraits, mixed with Reynolds’ British sensibility, created light, bright paintings, heady with elegance and grace. It is a mistake to characterise Reynolds’ portraits as toffs showing off their eminent status. Reynolds’ study of the Old Masters allowed him to create portraits with real emotional impact. The 1776 self-portrait of Reynolds as a Royal Academy man, at the top of his game, display an artist who takes real pride and optimism, not only in his personal accomplishments, but what he has achieved in promoting British art.

Mrs Hamar by Sir Joshua Reynolds. © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Frances Reynolds by Joshua Reynolds. © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

This is a theme that Reynolds returned to several times in his sketchbooks – perfecting and rehearsing – his sketch of a sitting woman uses a deft handling of light and shade to capture the physicality of the fabric as it catches the light. Reynolds lived in an age where clothes really did make the man (and woman) – getting those details right was not only crucial from an artistic standpoint, but essential in signifying Reynolds’ sitter and their status in the world. In the circles of the 18th century British aristocracy, there was no such thing as just a sleeve. Reynolds and his contemporary, Thomas Gainsborough, had the portrait business sewn up between them – Gainsborough was a society, blue-blood favourite while Reynolds painted famous faces, starting a cult of celebrity. You can see Reynolds’ delight in portraiture in the sketchbooks, where a sketch of a chubby-legged infant offers up the artist’s humour in spades.  The child’s impish expression is gorgeously irresistible – Reynolds challenges you to look away.

Reynolds’ skill in creating great faces, on his return to Britain, was well-timed: the landscapes popular in the 17th century were giving way to a contemporary craze for portraiture. Although Reynolds was chiefly inspired by the Old Masters, he was an admirer of more recent talents such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The influence of their psychological portraits, mixed with Reynolds’ British sensibility, created light, bright paintings, heady with elegance and grace. It is a mistake to characterise Reynolds’ portraits as toffs showing off their eminent status. Reynolds’ study of the Old Masters allowed him to create portraits with real emotional impact. The 1776 self-portrait of Reynolds as a Royal Academy man, at the top of his game, display an artist who takes real pride and optimism, not only in his personal accomplishments, but what he has achieved in promoting British art.

Reynolds’ visit to Italy not only animated his own work, but spurred him on to take British painting in a new direction. Also borrowing from later influences such as the vast court paintings by Van Dyck, Reynolds used that sense of scale and the poignancy of Van Dyck’s Charles I portraits, and adapted it. Instead of a fragile, transient glamour, Reynolds’ portraits speak of a bolder, headstrong age. His portraits allow us inside the frame. Reynolds captures personality and character, creating a language of intimacy and perspicacity. It is this openness that released British art from its inferiority complex – Reynolds’ determination to see British artists no longer coming second to the talents of mainland Europe, saw it develop to the point now where it competes as a player on the world stage.

These sketchbooks mark a turning point not just in Reynolds’ career but in the history of British art itself: what Reynolds took from his experience in Italy was to learn about the great masters as much as possible: to continue the tradition, but in order to find your own voice. Reynolds respected tradition and what it could teach you – but he wanted to move British art into a new era of self-expression. He was in many ways the perfect person to establish a Royal Academy. Through his own work, and encouraging the next generation to progress even further, he helped British art find its unique perspective.

The Eliot Family by Sir Joshua Reynolds c.1746. © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

While today’s art concentrates on introspection, it still takes its cue from Reynolds in forging new paths and points of view. Acknowledging what has gone before, and using that knowledge, has launched artistic voices as diverse as Grayson Perry, Anish Kapoor and Francis Bacon. Bacon’s ‘Triptychs’, Perry’s tapestry series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ and Kapoor’s career-long homage to his mentor, sculptor Paul Neagu, trace a line back through the past in order to create something new. We have moved in a very short space of time from portrayals of Gods and Kings, to portraits of intense psychological exploration. The shift from allegory to the intensely personal is a journey that gets to the very heart of what it means to be British.  Reynolds was one of the first British artists to make that journey by using skills and techniques from the Old Masters, to create a newly-defined artistic language of psychological insight. In giving us more of the person, Reynolds shaped a way of working that still resonates with artists today.

With Reynolds’ sketchbooks, this exhibition neatly demonstrates how artistic influence travels through the centuries. These dashed sketches and diagrams offer a window onto how British art has evolved. We have a long-established creative confidence that flourishes from Reynolds’ ability to interpret the past. By using tradition, Reynolds created art that was, and remains, unmistakably modern.