Overview of 18th Century ArtAs the 17th century drew to a close, the discoveries of science steadily increased human understanding as well as control of the natural world, and affirmed the primacy of human reason. The human intellect eclipsed faith as the guiding force of civilisation.
The unifying culture of Christianity was supplanted by the fractious and specialised disciplines of science, philosophy, history, and literature. The impact of this change on art was subtle but significant. Although 18th century artists served the same types of clients as their forebears, the images they created changed. By turns logical, intuitive, polemical, impulsive, brilliant or pedestrian, the art of the 18th century built on and exaggerated the tendencies of earlier periods. It became more refined, more delicate, more sensuous, more intellectual, more emotional, and more secular.
In many respects the art of the 18th century is the art of France. As the Bourbons rose to power after 1650, the language, manners, customs, and styles of France increasingly shaped those of the rest of Europe. Led by Louis XIV, who remodelled Paris into the grandest European capital, successive French kings lent their names to the decorative arts that spanned the century, and French artists set the styles that the rest of Europe followed.
Though France led the way in fashion, styles , manners, language, and much of art, Italy, Germany, and England all produced artists of originality and importance. England, which had imported so many of its artists in the previous century, saw its native artists gain a significant place in the history of 18th century art.
The cultivated and monied nobility and gentry of the 18th century considered a tour of the European continent a necessary part of every gentleman's education. The Grand Tour inevitably encompassed Italy, and Italy's art, both contemporary and ancient, became a passion for Europe in general, and for the English in particular.
Social and political problems began to weaken the political structure of Europe. While the nobility and the aristocracy maintained their claim to rule by inherited right, their power was challenged and their authority was eroded by an increasingly educated populace. The spirit of rebellion that beheaded Charles I in the previous century exploded into revolution. In 1776 the American colonies revolted against British domination, and in 1789 the French rose up against their king. France, the cultural capital of 18th century Europe, witnessed during these years the last great flowering of art for the aristocracy, which, in its determination to maintain the status quo, increased the demands for change.
The 17th century examined physical reality, while the 18th century examined the mind. Fantasies, reveries, ideas, and ideals of all kinds are imbedded in the diverse images of this period. Guided by the intellect, art throughout most of the century is characterised by an artifice that marks it and its creators as urbane, sophisticated, and educated. But the journey into the human psyche eventually ferreted out darker, more uncontrollable emotions, which the revolutions affirmed were hidden beneath the thinnest veneer of civilisation. Even Neo-classicism, which revived the ordered and rational forms of antique art, can be viewed as embodying powerful emotions. As the age of Romanticism dawned, life, death, and human experience of all kinds became a matter of feelings, not logic.
Contributed by Gifford, Katya