5 Most Outstanding Artists of the 18th Century

Canaletto. Self-portrait. XVIII century. Private collection.

Let’s remember the most famous artists.

Immediately in the memory pop the big names of the Renaissance with Leonardo da Vinci at the head. Or impressionists with their color revolution. Or such talented eccentrics as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. And for sure you also remember the Dutch artists.

It turns out that we recall more often artists of the XVI, XVII, XIX and XX centuries …

But what about the 18th century?

Meanwhile, this century in the history of painting was no less interesting.

At this time, talented masters also worked, who brought something completely new and amazing to the visual arts.

I suggest you get to know these wonderful artists closer.

1. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

Jean-Antoine Watteau. Self portrait.
Jean-Antoine Watteau. Self portrait. 1721. Museum Conde, France.

Antoine Watteau is the first and main writer of the Rococo era.

Having moved to Paris, he immediately “felt” for his topic – high society and the aristocracy’s activities.

Heroes of Watteau dance, play music, relax, walk in the park. Enviable scenes of carefree life.

However, the ironic look of the artist is captured in all this. You can feel both ambiguity, and melancholy, and sometimes sadness.

Please take a look at the picture “The Embarrassing Proposal”.

Jean-Antoine Watteau. The predicament.
Jean-Antoine Watteau. The predicament. 1716. The Hermitage.

At first glance, the plot is not intriguing. Against the background of nature, as if on stage, a company of aristocrats is resting. The sounds of the guitar, unhurried conversations. But please take a closer look: this is an imaginary idyll!

A young man in a blue jacket is trying to stop a girl trying to leave. The crimson cheeks of the ladies speak of indignation, resentment.

The rest of the girls do not look at the quarreling couple. But the man in red understands everything.

His slight smile with a bit of malice says that he is in the know about all the events. But he is not going to intercede for the girl.

On the contrary, it gives him pleasure to watch her reaction.

An awkward situation, which at first seemed like an ordinary pastoral.

So the picture in the rococo style can also be multi-layered.

Watteau entered the history of painting as a talented colorist.

The finest shades and layers of brown, lilac, yellow, pink tones – all this is the artist’s signature color scheme.

Consider the “Pilgrimage to Kieferu Island”. This picture was a turning point in the life of Watteau. It brought him fame and recognition.

Antoine Watteau. Pilgrimage to the island of Kieferu.
Antoine Watteau. Pilgrimage to the island of Kieferu. 1717. 129 × 194 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris.

The composition is amazingly built in the picture. The characters are arranged simply brilliantly: as if they were dancing, now rushing deep into the picture, then approaching the viewer.

At the end of his life, Watteau creates another amazing canvas – “Sign of the Gersen’s bench.”

Jean-Antoine Watteau. Sign of the Gersen shop.
Jean-Antoine Watteau. Sign of the Gersen shop. 1720. Charlottenburg, Germany.

Watteau created this picture as a sign for his friend’s real shop. Therefore, for some time this masterpiece hung on the street, above the door to this shop.

It would seem that this is just a domestic scene. Visitors view the paintings.

But Watteau always has something else laid down.

And here he shows the end of the era of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Allegorically, of course – the portrait of Louis is put in a drawer.

That’s how Watteau was able to convey meanings with the help of elegant and subtle poses and gestures.

This is still the same melancholy: it was with this ruler that art flourished. It was in this era that Watteau took place as an artist.

The most creative period of the artist lasted only 12 years! But during this time he managed to gain recognition, grow followers and give a start to a new style in art (Rococo).

2. Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779)

Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Self-portrait.
Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Self-portrait. 1771. The Louvre Museum, Paris.

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin was deprived of recognition during his lifetime. But in vain – his artworks are the greatest achievement of realism in painting.

Most of all he liked to write … fruits.

Even when Chardin was made a member of the French Academy, he was designated as a “figurine of fruit.”

Chardin did not fit into the Rococo era. Absolutely. He fundamentally ignored the fashion for elegant subjects and ceremonial portraits. He was an artist of the “Third Estate”.

But as a result, his artworks were out of time.

It is amazing how much love for the surrounding world is read in his paintings! It seems that Chardin admired literally everything that he saw around.

A vivid example of such a special outlook on life is the painting “Copper Tank”. Who else would come to mind in the gallant XVIII century to draw a tank ?!

Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Copper tank.
Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Copper tank. 1734. The Louvre, Paris.

In this simplicity, the master saw poetry. With the help of color, he conveyed a polished sheen from many hand touches, the play of the sun on copper sides.

This is more than a still-life. This is an image full of nobility. And no simplicity of the subject can hide it.

Only the most perspicacious contemporaries were able to appreciate the Chardin. For example, Didro.

After all, it’s hard not to admire the honesty and observation of the artist! Here, for example, “Boy with a Yule.”

Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Boy with a yule.
Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Boy with a yule. 1738. The Louvre Museum, Paris.

Fashionable wig, stiff suit, tight neckerchief, strict posture.

But Charden shows that this is just a boy who is characterized by curiosity and liveliness of character. And no attributes will hide it.

The artist was a devoted family man. Even in a self-portrait, he is in a home cap, a kind-hearted grandfather.

The image of the spouse is extremely true, without embellishment.

Jean Baptiste Chardin. Portrait of the wife.
Jean Baptiste Chardin. Portrait of the wife. 1776. Chicago Institute of Art.

She is already a middle-aged woman, but there is so much devotion and sincerity here.

And this is at a time when customers were waiting for a decorative and artsy beauty from the portrait.

Well, Chardin boldly moved his way. He preferred a simple story about life, about people and their way of life.

3. Canaletto (1697-1768)

Canaletto. Self-portrait. XVIII century.
Canaletto. Self-portrait. XVIII century. Private collection.

Canaletto was the founder of the Vedic school. No, this is not a religious movement. Just a picturesque genre, which involves a detailed image of the city landscape.

Such an approach to the landscape was new in those days. And it was the Canaletto method that had the greatest impact on all subsequent generations of landscape artists.

Canaletto began with images of the daily life of the Venetian streets. And already in his first works there was accuracy of the drawing, mastery of the composition, knowledge of architecture.

Here, for example, the canvas “Grand Canal.”

Canaletto. Grand Canal.
Canaletto. Grand Canal. 1730. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The viewer is literally overwhelmed with sunlight, fresh air. The gaze rises deep into the landscape, a little “stumbling” on the gondola.

And the buildings around are no longer the soulless theatrical scenery, but full-fledged heroes of the picture. Amazing transmission of light and shadow! Well, how can you not remember the impressionists?

Canaletto worked a lot in the open air, which at that time was a rare practice.

He experimented a lot with the arrangement of elements on the canvas. And he actively used a pinhole camera to achieve documented accuracy in the image.

Canaletto. Westminster Abbey.
Canaletto. Westminster Abbey. 1749. Museum of Westminster.

But the artist did not always accurately transfer the image of the real world to the canvas. If it seemed to him that the composition was not harmonious enough, he boldly changed the appearance of architectural buildings. According to the principle “I am an artist, I see so.”

In 1746, Canaletto moved to England, where he quickly won the love of public.

In the painting “Westminster Abbey” the composition is, of course, free.

If you take a photo from the same place, then you will not fit so much into the frame.

But how much due to this freedom appears symmetry and harmony! No exact photo can convey the grandeur of the cathedral as Canaletto did!

Look at another famous painting by the artist “Scuola San Marco”.

Canaletto. Scuola San Marco.
Canaletto. Scuola San Marco. 1765. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

The artist selects an unusual, dramatic color of the sky. The building is drawn with an incredibly thin line. Dawn rays gently envelop Scuola. A stunning combination of natural beauty and architecture. This is the whole Canaletto!

At the end of life, the fashion for such landscapes passed. He was forgotten. But his influence on art will never weaken. After all, Canaletto laid the foundations for a completely new aesthetics of urban landscapes.

Online course button

4. Jean-Etienne Lyotard (1702-1789)

Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Self portrait.
Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Self portrait. 1868. Private collection.

The personality of Lyotard is mysterious. And his biography is full of white spots, For example, it is still not known why he dressed like a nee of Turkey.

It is known that he was the thirteenth child in the family and received his first education as a miniaturist.

After there were years of wanderings, about which little is known. But it was at this time that he discovered the pastel. This technique made him famous throughout Europe.

One of the first mature works of the master is “Three Graces”.

Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Three Graces.
Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Three Graces. 1737. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Here you can see why the master loved pastel so much. Soft lines, smooth color transitions, realistic image of details and, of course, delicate coloring.

The artist himself mentioned that painting is a mirror of all that is beautiful, and only pastel can realistically convey the delightful surrounding world.

Looking at this pastel picture, it is difficult to object to the master.

It would seem that the Rococo style is in its prime. But Lyotard offers us a completely different beauty. The ceremonial portrait and decorativeness are left aside.

The master refuses the background, so that his heroes could not “hide” behind the lush ornate scenery. The court ladies did not always like such a straightforward approach.

The most famous painting of Lyotard is “Chocolate Girl”.

Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Chocolate Girl.
Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Chocolate Girl. 1745. Pastel, parchment. 82.5×52.5 cm. Dresden Gallery.

The personality of the beautiful heroine has generated many myths.

Looking the model to the side destroys all the canons of the classic portrait.

The neutral background makes the image even more embossed.

In the Rococo era, when portraits were distinguished by their mannerism and an abundance of detail, Lyotard’s “Chocolate Girl” was just a revelation.

Photographic veracity discouraged and delighted the public.

The story of the master would not be complete without any royal portrait. For example, Portrait of George, Prince of Wales (later – George III).

Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Portrait of George, Prince of Wales (later George 3).
Jean-Etienne Lyotard. Portrait of George, Prince of Wales (later George 3). 1754. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

A young man appears before us in a half-turn. We do not see magnificent clothes, attributes of a royal affiliation.

But immediately our attention was attracted by the blush on the cheeks of the hero: in front of us is just a young man, although a prince.

Lyotard is an example of independence and truthfulness in art. We still have a curious adage from contemporaries that says a lot about this artist: “He watched others work and did everything in his own way!”

5. Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-1779)

Anton Rafael Mengs. Self portrait.
Anton Rafael Mengs. Self portrait. 1773. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-1779) also got tired of the excessive splendor of the Rococo, but did not go on unknown paths.

Mengs called for combining the accuracy of the classical canons of ancient art with the best finds of Renaissance masters. You need to take all the best from the best. What could be easier?

Well, the public endorsed this approach. The most famous people of the era posed for the artist. For example, Elector Frederick Christian.

Anton Rafael Mengs. Elector Frederick Christian.
Anton Rafael Mengs. Elector Frederick Christian. 1751. Weissenstein Palace.

The portrait is clearly made in a classic style. There is no excessive baroque dramatization, the meticulous photographic accuracy of realism and experiments with the lighting effects of impressionism.

The hero of the portrait looks like the perfect representative of his estate. Expensive attire, confident look, proud posture, regular features. A bit overweight, but then it was a sign of material wealth.

Contemporaries called the portraits of Mengs too cold. But he just followed the exact rules of composition, chiaroscuro and perspective.

“Taste for perfection” Mengs also demonstrates in his religious paintings. Look at the picture “Christmas.”

Anton Rafael Mengs. Christmas.
Anton Rafael Mengs. Christmas. 1772. Prado, Madrid.

It seems that we have a picture of the Renaissance. No, this is Mengs. The painter believed that Renaissance artists had impeccable taste. And there is nothing wrong to imitate.

The composition “Christmas” is made in the Renaissance style – a clear division into the earthly world and the heavenly world.

Poses, of course, are somewhat theatrical. But the figures are very well located in space. Also, the colors are perfectly matched to the plot.

If Mengs lived in the sixteenth century, then he would definitely have been inscribed on the list of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Along with Raphael and Titian.

But this did not happen, as he simply followed in their footsteps. Although very masterful.

But once Mengs was too carried away by imitation. And almost was recorded as a scammer. This story is connected with his famous artwork “Jupiter Kisses Ganymede”.

Anton Rafael Mengs. Jupiter kisses Ganymede.
Anton Rafael Mengs. Jupiter kisses Ganymede. 1758. National Gallery, Rome.

It was this picture that forever quarreled Mengs with his friend Johann Winkelmann, a scholar-researcher of ancient art.

Winkelmann took the picture for an antique script: Mengs so accurately copied the style of the ancient masters.

Moreover, he even contributed the canvas to his art history book, which greatly damaged his reputation when the deception was revealed.

What kind of adventurous thoughts overwhelmed Mengs to do so is unknown.

No matter how Mengs was scolded for “coldness and insincerity,” it’s impossible not to recognize his achievements.

Mengs first preserved the classical traditions in painting, and then degenerated them into an updated style – neoclassicism.


These artists of the XVIII century, each in his own way saw painting and the future of his beloved art.

The Frenchman Watteau became the “singer” of the aristocratic society.

Another Frenchman, Chardin, first turned to everyday subjects, finding in this extraordinary beauty and poetry.

The Italian Canaletto glorified urban landscapes.

Swiss Lyotard took a fresh look at the portrait genre, highlighting the pastel technique.

And German Mengs became the founder of “neoclassicism”.


If my style of presenting information is close to you and you are interested in studying art, I can send you a free series of lessons to your email. For this, please fill in a simple form at this link.

See other readers’ comments below. It is a good addition to the article.  You can also share your opinion about the painting and the artist, as well as ask your question to the author.

About the author

Go to home page

Photos: Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “5 Most Outstanding Artists of the 18th Century”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: