The Golden Age of English Painting

From Reynolds to Turner Masterpieces of the Tate Britain
until 16 February 2020
Musée du Luxembourg 19, rue Vaugirard, 75006 Paris

The golden age of English painting

The 1760s, the start of the reign of George III, marked a turning point in British art with the triumphant rise of Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), and saw the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, of which Reynolds was the first president. The renowned masters of portraiture, Reynolds and Gainsborough competed to raise the genre to new heights of visual and intellectual innovation. They paid tribute to the grand masters while demonstrating acute psychological insight and a command of painting that was always original.

The exhibition The Golden Age of English Painting begins by juxtaposing these two painters through full-length portraits and intimate studies that bear a striking resemblance to public figures, members of the royal family and other important people. Here, Reynolds’ intellectual ambition and historical references contrast with Gainsborough’s immediacy and pictorial grace. Together, they redefined British art and inspired the new generation to new heights. Their lasting influence is then explored through a selection of major portraits painted by either their direct competitors or their disciples, most of whom were drawn to the new Royal Academy, among them John Hopper, William Beechey and Thomas Lawrence. With the support of the king, and more importantly by key figures of trade and
industry, British painting flourished into a host of different styles and was seen by contemporaries as the sign of a golden age for the arts.

The next section will address themes that were in vogue at the time, such as lineage, family and the home, in the portraits and genre painting. This era saw the birth of a new interpretation of childhood, characterised by intimate tone and a championing of leisure. Representations of the family and childish innocence illustrate a new understanding of nature and emotion. The subsequent section develops this theme with a focus on paintings depicting everyday life, and rural life in particular. Major works by Gainsborough (in his preferred role of landscape painter), George Stubbs and George Morland reveal the new attention paid to the picturesque, while Reynolds’ extraordinary portrait, The Archers, uses the concept of wild nature to espouse a new heroic image of the British ruling class.

A more focussed selection then illustrates the presence of Great Britain in India and the Caribbean, reminding us that the country’s artistic and cultural progress was essentially founded on the political and commercial exploitation of overseas territories.

In parallel to this, another aspect of the The golden age of English painting is a selection of works on paper that demonstrates the remarkable rise of another form of pictorial expression in England, watercolour, which enabled many artists to attract attention while meeting the need for a new society of art-lovers.

As president of the Royal Academy, Reynolds set out new ambitions for British art, focused on historical painting, the only genre that could entirely fulfill an artist, even though he himself noted that patrons were rarely inclined to support this very noble form. However, portraits, landscapes
and scenes of daily life prospered during the golden age of English painting, and the true variety of British art in these fields seemed to be the product of a uniquely British prowess, free from rules and conventions. Nevertheless, historical painting did develop in Great Britain, undergoing a radical transformation during this period. The final part of the exhibition shows how British artists cultivated narrative figuration, raising it to the sublime. Works by Henri Fuseli, John Martin and P.J. De Loutherbourg, as well as the art of J.M.W. Turner, paved the way for a new vision of art as a medium for the imagination.

opening hours:
every day from Monday to Sunday from 10.30 am to 7pm,
late opening on Mondays until 10pm.
opening on the 24 and 31st of December from 10.30 am to 6pm.
the museum is closed on the 25th of December.

prices: 13 € ; concessions 9 €, special young persons rate : 9 €

information and booking: