English artists. 6 masters who changed the world art

Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of a Lady in Blue (detail). 1778-1782

The artists of which country have contributed most to development of the world art?

When hearing this question, French artists are often thought of. And the Dutch. And of course, no one doubts the influence of Italian Renaissance.

However, if we consider the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the English artists’ achievements are worth mentioning.

During this time period, several outstanding masters worked in the country of foggy Albion, who completely changed the world art.

1. William Hogarth (1697-1764)

William Hogarth. Self-portrait. 1745
William Hogarth. Self-portrait. 1745. The Tate Gallery, London

It was a difficult time Hogarth lived in. At the beginning off the 18th century in England, the bourgeois society had just appeared substituting for the feudal one.

Moral values were vague. Mercenariness and greed for wealth at any cost were seriously considered to be strong points.

Hogarth decided not to keep silent. But tried to open his countrymen’s eyes and show them decay of moral values. By using paintings and engravings.

He began with the series of paintings “A Harlot’s Progress”. Unfortunately, there are no paintings remained. We have only engravings left.

William Hogarth. A Harlot’s Progress: Caught by a Bawd. Engraving. 1732.
William Hogarth. A Harlot’s Progress: Caught by a Bawd. Engraving. 1732.

It’s a real story of a village girl called Mary, who came to a city to look for her luck. But fell into clutches of an old bawd.

We can see this scene on the first engraving. After becoming a fancy woman, she spent her short life among social outcasts.

Hogarth deliberately turned his paintings into engravings to distribute them widely. Thus, he tried to reach as many people as he could.

He wanted to warn not only poor girls like Mary, but noble people as well. This can be seen from the series of his works “Marriage a la Mode”.

The story described was extremely typical for that time. An impoverished aristocrat marries a daughter of a wealthy merchant. However, it is only a deal that implies no accord of hearts.

The most famous painting of the series “The Tete-a-Tete” demonstrates the emptiness of their relationship.

William Hogarth. Marriage a la Mode. The Tete-a-Tete. 1743.
William Hogarth. Marriage a la Mode. The Tete-a-Tete. 1743. The National Gallery of London

The wife had spent the night having fun with guests. And the husband returned home only in the morning, feeling ruined by revelry (judging by a spot on his neck, he already suffered from syphilis).

The Countess stretches her arms and is about to yawn. On her face, we can see that she is completely indifferent to her husband. No wonder. She has an extradyadic affair.

The story has a sad end. The husband will find his wife in bed with her lover and will be stabbed to death in a duel. The lover will be hanged. And the Countess will commit suicide.

Hogarth wasn’t just a caricaturist. He was too talented for that. His colour combinations were too complex and harmonious and the paintings were incredibly expressive.

You can easily “read” his paintings, understanding the relationship between people.

William Hogarth. Marriage a la Mode. The Duel and the Count’s Death. 1743.
William Hogarth. Marriage a la Mode. The Duel and the Count’s Death. 1743. The National Gallery of London

It’s difficult to overestimate Hogarth’s merits. After all, he invented the critical realism. He was the one to depict so many conflicts and social dramas in painting. Hogarth inspired Francisco Goya to create his famous Caprichos.

2. Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Joshua Reynolds. Self-portrait. 1747.
Joshua Reynolds. Self-portrait. 1747. The National Portrait Gallery, London

There are only few painters in the world who were basking in the spotlight when alive and at the same time managed to survive in the descendants’ memory. An English artist Joshua Reynolds was one of those lucky ones.

Since childhood, he knew that the only thing he wanted was to paint. He gained recognition quickly. Indeed, his talent was complimented by a suitable character. Sociable and energetic. In every respect, he won the clients’ hearts easily.

No wonder that once Reynolds became the most influential official in the world of art. At the age of 45, he was elected the President of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Joshua Reynolds. Portrait of Colonel Banastre Tarleton. 1782.
Joshua Reynolds. Portrait of Colonel Banastre Tarleton. 1782. The National London Gallery

Using an appropriate suit, environment or landscape, expression on the face and postures, Reynolds could reveal a person’s most advantageous qualities.

This is true about the portrait of Colonel Tarleton.

It’s the best solution to show the truly courageous man of action against the background of flying colours and clouds of smoke. And the drawing of a sword successfully hides the hand with fingers lost in a battle.

When painting female portraits, Reynolds, undoubtedly, emphasized tenderness and beauty. But he never forgot about the heroine’s character.

Joshua Reynolds. Countess of Harrington. 1779.
Joshua Reynolds. Countess of Harrington. 1779. The Huntington Gallery, San Marino, USA

One can clearly see at once that the Countess of Harrington is a self-assured person. But the artist softens it with an appropriate scenery and dress. Assurance is clearly flattering to such a lady.

In his last years he didn’t see well. And didn’t touch the brush any more. But one order he couldn’t refuse. His client was Catherine II.

Since then, there are several late works by Reynolds in the Hermitage Museum. Including “Venus and Cupid”.

Joshua Reynolds. Cupid Untying the Girdle of Venus. 1788.
Joshua Reynolds. Cupid Untying the Girdle of Venus. 1788. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

We see Venus making a gesture, non-trivial for Reynolds. She is embarrassed by the eyes looking at her.

The painting clearly shows how Reynolds skilfully copied the old masters’ achievements. The warm and deep colours of Titian. The languishing, soft lines of Rubens.

Reynolds didn’t reinvent the wheel. But he set extremely high standards for all European artists.

3. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)

Thomas Gainsborough. Self-portrait. 1758-1759.
Thomas Gainsborough. Self-portrait. 1758-1759. The National Portrait Gallery, London

Not for nothing Gainsborough can be called the most famous English painter of the 18th century. He lived at the same time as Reynolds. And they were rivals.

The difference between Reynolds and Gainsborough can be seen with the naked eye. The first one uses red and golden shades, majestic and solemn images.

Gainsborough prefers silver and blue, as well as olive and green shades. His portraits were aerial and intimate.

Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of a Lady in Blue. 1778-1782
Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of a Lady in Blue. 1778-1782. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

All these we can see in the portrait “A Lady in Blue”. There is no emotional tension – just a beautiful and gentle image. To achieve this effect, Gainsborough used a thin, almost 6,5 feet (2 meters) long brush for working!

In the first place, Gainsborough always considered himself to be a landscape painter. But the need to earn money forced him to paint portraits on a by-order basis. The irony of it is that he became famous and remained in history precisely as a portrait painter.

But the artist compromised with himself. He often portraying his clients out in the country. Thus, he united hateful portraits and his favorite landscapes.

Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (Morning Walk). 1785.
Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (Morning Walk). 1785. The National Gallery, London

Clients could not decide which of the two portrait painters they liked more. And the aristocrats kept ordering portraits from both Reynolds and Gainsborough. They were too different. But there works were equally impressive.

But unlike Reynolds, his opponent was attracted by ordinary people as well. He painted a duchess and a commoner with the same passion.

Thomas Gainsborough. Girl with pigs. 1782.
Thomas Gainsborough. Girl with pigs. 1782. Private collection

Reynolds traded his painting “Girls with Pigs” from one collector for a Titian’s painting he possessed as he considered it to be the best work of his rival.

Gainsborough’s works are unique in their quality. Here, we can see unhidden touches, which at a distance make the painting look alive and breathing.

There are smooth and shaded lines. As if everything happens in humid air, which is really true for England.

And, of course, an unusual combination of portrait and landscape. All this distinguishes Gainsborough from many other portrait painters of his time.

4. William Blake (1757-1827)

Thomas Phillips. Portrait of William Blake. 1807.
Thomas Phillips. Portrait of William Blake. 1807. The National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake was an extraordinary person. Since childhood he saw mystical visions. And when he grew up, he became an anarchist. He denied laws and moral, being sure that they oppressed human freedom.

He did not recognize religion either, considering it to be the main limitation of freedom. Of course, his opinion reflected in his works. “The architect of the world” is his dead-set at Christianity.

William Blake. The Great Architect. Hand-painted etching.
William Blake. The Great Architect. Hand-painted etching. 36 x 26 cm. 1794. The British Museum, London

The Creator holds compasses, tracing borders for humans – the borders that are impossible to cross. That make our thinking limited and existing within narrow frames.

For his contemporaries, his works seemed too extraordinary, so he didn’t lived to be recognized.

Some people saw prophecies and future disturbances in his paintings. They perceived Blake as a blessed one, a man out of head.

But officially Blake was never declared mad. He spent all his life working fruitfully. Moreover, he was a all around handyman. He was an excellent engraver and a brilliant illustrator. He was the one who created incredible watercolours for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

William Blake. The Whirlwind of Lovers. 1824-1827.
William Blake. The Whirlwind of Lovers. 1824-1827. Illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy

The only thing that Blake had in common with his era is the fashion for everything terrible and fabulous. Indeed, in England of the 19th century, romanticism and fabulous motifs were rather popular.

Therefore, his painting “Ghost of a Flea” fits perfectly into the common series of works of that period.

William Blake. Ghost of a Flea. 1819
William Blake. Ghost of a Flea. 1819. Tempera, gold, wood. 21 x 16 cm. The Tate Museum, Britain, London

Blake assured that he had seen a bloodsucker’s soul. But it was placed in a tiny flea. If this soul was placed in a human being, a lot of blood would be shed.

Obviously, Blake was born ahead of his time. His works frighteningly resemble the works of symbolists and surrealists of the 20th century. They were the ones who remembered about this master 100 years after his death. He became their idol and inspirational figure.

5. John Constable (1776-1837)

Ramsey Reinagle. Portrait of John Constable. 1799
Ramsey Reinagle. Portrait of John Constable. 1799. The National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite his aristocratic appearance, Constable was a miller’s son. He loved hand labour. He could plow, build fences and fish. Maybe that’s the reason why we find no pathos in his landscapes. They are natural and realistic.

Before, artists used to paint idealized landscapes, often Italian ones. But Constable depicted a particular locality. A river, a cottage and trees that really existed.

John Constable. The Hay Wain. 1821.
John Constable. The Hay Wain. 1821. The National Gallery, London

His “Hay Wain” is the most famous English landscape. This was the work seen by the French public at the Paris exhibition of 1824.

Young impressionists were particularly impressed. In this painting, some of them saw something they were aiming at. No academic pomposity. No ancient ruins and spectacular sunsets. Just an everyday life in the countryside. Attractive in its naturalness.

After this exhibition, Constable sold as many as 20 of his paintings in Paris. However, his landscapes were almost never bought in his motherland.

But unlike Gainsborough, he rarely switched to portraits for the sake to earn money. He continued to improve his skills in landscape painting.

For this reason, he studied natural phenomena from a scientific point of view. And he could select colours that were extremely close to those found in nature. He was especially skilled at painting the sky – the contrasting light and dark clouds.

John Constable. Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds. 1826.
John Constable. Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds. 1826. The Frick Collection, New York


But Constable is famous for not only incredibly realistic paintings. But by his sketches as well.

The artist created a sketch of the same size as his future painting. He worked right outdoors. It was his know-how. This is the working method that Impressionists will adopt later.

John Constable. Boat and Stormy Sky. 1824-1828.
John Constable. Boat and Stormy Sky. 1824-1828. The Royal Collection, London

But quite often, Constable used these sketches to paint completed works in his studio. Although at that time, the public liked them more, they were not as lively and full of movement as sketches.

It was only in the 20th century that countrymen realized the greatness of Constable. And till now, he is one of the most beloved artists in England.

6. William Turner (1775-1851 )

William Turner. Self-portrait. 1799.
William Turner. Self-portrait. 1799. The Tate Gallery, London

An English painter William Turner was able to gain popularity and become a member of the art academy when he was still young. Almost immediately, people began to call him “the artist of light”, since the sun was often present on his paintings.

If you look at other artists’ landscapes, you will hardly see any sun. It is too bright.

This brightness is hard to depict. It is in the eyes. It distorts everything around. But Turner wasn’t afraid of this. He drew the sun in its heyday and at sunset. He boldly covered all around with its light.

William Turner. The Harbour of Dieppe. 1826.
William Turner. The Harbour of Dieppe. 1826. The Frick Collection, New York, USA


But Turner could not help experimenting, though he was an academician and set a high value on his title. His mind was too extraordinary and agile.

Therefore, as soon as in a couple of decades, his works evolved greatly. There were less details but more light. More sensations.

One of the most famous paintings of that time is “Last voyage of the Frigate “Brave”.

Here, we can see a bit of allegory. Sailing ships are replaced by steam ones. One era replaces another. The sun sets, and the moon rises to replace it (top left).

William Turner. Last voyage of the Frigate "Brave". 1838.
William Turner. Last voyage of the Frigate “Brave”. 1838. The National Gallery, London


Here, the sun still keeps dominating position. The sunset takes as much as the half of the picture.

And in the subsequent works the artist almost approaches the abstract art by hypertrophying all his previous aspirations. By removing details and leaving only sensations and light.

William Turner. The Morning after the Deluge. 1843.
William Turner. The Morning after the Deluge. 1843. The Tate Gallery, London

As you understand, the public failed to appreciate such works. Queen Victoria refused to knight Turner. And his reputation was shaken. In society, hints on his madness were heard more and more often.

This is the fate of all the true artists. He takes a step too far forward. And the public catches him up only decades or and even centuries later. That is what happened to the great Turner.

7. Pre-Raphaelites

It’s impossible to ignore the Pre-Raphaelites when speaking of the English artists. Moreover, they became extremely popular in the 21st century.

Where did such a strong love for these artists come from?

The Pre-Raphaelites started with setting high goals. They wanted to find a way out of the dead end of stiff academic painting. They were tired of depicting myths and historical plots that were little known to the general public. They wanted to show a real, lively beauty.

And the Pre-Raphaelites began to show female images. They turned out to be extremely beautiful and attractive.

Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Beata Beatrix. 1864-1870. Right: John William Waterhouse. Boreas. 1903.
Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Beata Beatrix. 1864-1870. The Tate Gallery, London. Right: John William Waterhouse. Boreas. 1903. Private collection

What are worth only of their red-haired beauties. As a rule, they were their lovers in real life as well.

The pre-Raphaelites began to praise female beauty. As a result, nothing was left in them apart from this.
It looked like posed, gorgeous shots for glossy magazines. Such images are easy to imagine as advertisements of women’s perfumes.

That’s why the people of the 21st century liked the Pre-Raphaelites so much. Since it’s the age of glamorous, bright advertising.

John Everett Millais. Ophelia. 1851.
John Everett Millais. Ophelia. 1851. The Tate Gallery, London

Despite the apparent emptiness of many works, it was these artists who stood at the origins of design development that later broke off from art. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelites (for example, William Morris) worked a lot on sketches of fabrics, wallpapers and other interior decorations.

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I hope that after reading this article, you have seen the English artists from a new point of view. It was not always only the Italians and the Dutch who influenced the world art. The English have also made their substantial contribution.

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