British Art in the 17th Century

Painting Sculpture
Historical background

Painting

English painting during the 17th century had been dominated by a series of foreign-born practitioners, mostly portraitists (e.g., Rubens and Van Dyck), even before the Civil War. Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller continued this trend after the Restoration. The German-born Kneller succeeded Lely as court portrait painter, but, although his portraits often have a certain liveliness, his rather heavy use of studio assistants resulted in a tendency to monotony. The vast majority of the painting executed by native artists remained thoroughly provincial. Lely began his activity in England during the Civil War, probably in 1641, but his portraits of the members of the court of Charles II set the pattern for English portraiture of the second half of the 17th century. Gerard Soest, Jacob Huysmans, and Willem Wissing were also active in England as portrait painters close in style to Lely, whereas Jan Siberechts and Robert Streeter painted "portraits" of English country houses. The most distinguished painters to settle in England during this period were the van de Veldes, from whom the tradition of British marine painting descends, headed by Peter Monamy and Samuel Scott.

Sculpture

English sculpture of the early 17th century was very provincial, with Nicholas Stone and Edward Marshall the only English-born sculptors to rise above the general level of mediocrity. Their styles were based on contemporary Netherlandish sculpture with small admixtures of Italian influence; and after 1660 the uncomprehending borrowings of John Bushnell from Bernini serve only to make his figures look ludicrous. The most distinguished English-born sculptor of the second half of the 17th century was Edward Pearce, in whose rare busts is to be found something of Bernini's vigour and intensity. But the general run of English sculpture as represented by Francis Bird, Edward Stanton, and even the internationally renowned woodcarver Grinling Gibbons remained unexceptional. It was not until John Michael Rysbrack from Antwerp settled in England in c. 1720, followed by the Frenchman Louis-François Roubiliac in c. 1732, that two sculptors of European stature were active in England.


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