Art Styles: Mannerism

Tintoretto Origina of the Milky Way mannerism paintingMannerism was an art style that focused on the human form, depicted in intricate poses and in exaggerated, not always realistic settings. The term Mannerism was derived from the Italian word maniera, translated as “style.” Mannerism developed in Florence and Rome between 1520 and 1600, as a style that rejected the balance of the Renaissance period in favor of a more emotional and distorted point of view. This art style reflected the tension in Europe at the time of its popularity.

The Mannerism Movement eventually gained favor in northern Italy and most of central and northern Europe. Paintings contained artificial color and unrealistic spatial proportions. Figures were often elongated and exaggerated, positioned in imaginative and complex poses. Works of the movement are often unsettling and strange, probably a result of the time period’s upheaval from the Reformation, the plague, and the sack of Rome. In 1600, Mannerists were accused of disrupting the unity of Renaissance classicism. However, in retrospect, the Mannerist movement supplied the link between Renaissance perfection and the emotional Baroque art that later developed in the 17th century.

The sixteenth-century artist and critic Vasari, himself a mannerist, believed that excellence in painting demanded refinement, richness of invention, and virtuoso technique, criteria that emphasized the artist’s intellect. More important than his carefully recreated observation of nature was the artist’s mental conception and its elaboration. This intellectual bias was, in part, a natural consequence of the artist’s new status in society. No longer regarded as craftsmen, painters and sculptors took their place with scholars, poets, and humanists in a climate that fostered an appreciation for elegance, complexity, and even precocity.

El Greco Laocoon painting in a clear mannerism styleMore than any other Venetian artist, Tintoretto  (his painting “Origin of the Milky Way“ is shown above) embraced the emotional aspects of Mannerism. He was a huge fan of Michelangelo, whose influence can clearly be seen.  Although Tintoretto was prolific, and one of the most successful Venetian painter in the generation after Titian's death, little is known of his life. For his phenomenal energy in painting Tintoretto was termed Il Furioso, and his dramatic use of perspective space and special lighting effects are what Tintoretto is best known for today.

El Greco is arguably the best-known Mannerist painter. Born on Crete, then a possession of Venice, El Greco learned his craft in the Byzantine manner. An extremely pious, cultured man, El Greco's very intense, spiritual works are famed for their tortuously elongated figures. The most unusual painter in 16th-century Europe, El Greco combined the strict Byzantine style of his homeland, Greece, with influences received during his studies in Venice and the medieval tradition of the country where he worked, Spain. El Greco's dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century. He later spent enough time in Venice itself to pick up dramatic color techniques, then synthesized all into a whole after settling in Spain. The spirited Counter-Reformation going on in El Greco's new  home lent itself to his mystical and religious themes. El Greco's art style was so completely unique that it died with him, its loss unnoticed for centuries. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.

The Mannerist artists now had actual works, from antiquity, to study. No longer did they need to use their respective imagination when it came to Classical stylization. Artists had gained technical knowledge during the Renaissance, such as the use of oil paints and perspective, which would never again be lost to a "dark" age. Another new development at this time was rudimentary archaeology. High Renaissance art was natural, graceful, balanced and harmonious but the art of Mannerism was quite different. While technically masterful, Mannerist compositions were full of clashing colors, disquieting figures with abnormally elongated limbs, emotion and bizarre themes that combined Classicism, Christianity and mythology.
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