Grand Manner (or Grand Style, maniera magnifica) refers to an idealized aesthetic style derived from classical art, and the modern “classic art” of the High Renaissance. Originally applied to history painting, regarded as the highest in the hierarchy of genres, the Grand Manner came thereafter also to be applied to portrait painting, with sitters depicted life size and full-length, in surroundings that conveyed the nobility and elite status of the subjects. Common metaphors included the introduction of classical architecture, signifying cultivation and sophistication, and pastoral backgrounds, which implied a virtuous character of unpretentious sincerity undefiled by the possession of great wealth and estates.
The Grand manner is aesthetics associated with the French painter Nicolas Poussin, who, during the 1640s, defines his way of painting. According to him, painting had to appeal to the intellectual faculties and show the noblest human actions based on the principles of reason and order. This Italian expression, attached to the hierarchy of genres, and to the development of both classicism, baroque painting and neoclassicism, flourished particularly in England during the eighteenth century.
Grand manner used widely from the eighteenth century to describe what was considered to be the highest style of art in academic theory – a style based on an idealised, classical approach. Grand manner was strictly used for history painting, but Reynolds adapted it very successfully to portraiture, inventing the high art portrait.
In the eighteenth century, British artists and connoisseurs used the term to describe paintings that incorporated visual metaphors in order to suggest noble qualities. It was Sir Joshua Reynolds who gave currency to the term through his Discourses on Art, a series of lectures presented at the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1790, in which he contended that painters should perceive their subjects through generalization and idealization, rather than by the careful copy of nature. Reynolds never actually uses the phrase, referring instead to the “great style” or “grand style”, in reference to history painting.
Grand manner genres:
The four main modes are:
Phrygian: adapted to violent scenes, to representations of battles;
Lydian: to represent tragedies;
Ionian: scenes of jubilation, joy, celebration;
hypolidian: religious scenes.
By his system, Poussin introduces a new rhetoric of the image, which probably owes much to the famous treatise of Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura that he also illustrated for an edition published in 1651.
Origin and neo-stoicism
Nicolas Poussin lives mainly in Rome from 1624. He frequents a very international environment with artists as well French as Flemish, Lorraine and German. He totally rejects Caravagism. His fame continues to grow. It is precisely to mark his break with Mannerism that predominated in French art until the beginning of the seventeenth century that he formalized his own approach to painting in the early 1640s. In a letter he addressed on 28 April 1639 to Paul Fréart de Chantelou, whom he had known in Rome, Poussin explains his “theory of modes”, starting from the classical theory among the Greeks for whom music is capable of expressing different emotions, that the we can read a painting, that the painting is the text of a story, whose characters (writing) are signs that are both formal and expressive. “Formal signs” are the layout or distribution in the representation space; the “expressive signs” are the expressions, gestures, looks, movements, which are the exact signs of the affects.
This reading of the painting whose rules do not rest on those of the syntax but on those of the figuration, Poussin develops them thanks to his readings of the texts resulting from the neo-Stoic school, for example the De Constantia (1584) and the Politicorum sive civilis doctrinae (1589) of Juste Lipse who draw on Seneca or Tacitus, a way of thinking the world in accordance with the values of Christendom.
Impact and development
This aesthetic ideal will have in the 18th century a considerable impact on the development of the English painting school. The portrait, often in full length, is here the place of the favorite expression of the great maniera with among others Joshua Reynolds, artist who incorporates in his paintings visual metaphors to suggest the noble qualities of the people represented.
This method he calls the great maniera, it becomes effective in his painting in the 1640s.
How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact, may be seen in the cartoons of Raffaelle. In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving yet we are expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable appearance; and of St. Paul in particular, we are told by himself, that his bodily presence was mean. Alexander is said to have been of a low stature: a painter ought not so to represent him. Agesilaus was low, lame, and of a mean appearance. None of these defects ought to appear in a piece of which he is the hero. In conformity to custom, I call this part of the art history painting; it ought to be called poetical, as in reality it is.
The term grand manner was given currency by Sir Joshua Reynolds and extensively discussed in his Discourses on Art – fifteen lectures delivered to students at Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790. Reynolds argued that painters should not slavishly copy nature but seek a generalised and ideal form. This ‘gives what is called the grand style to invention, to composition, to expression, and even to colouring and drapery’ (Fourth Discourse). In practice it meant drawing on the style of ancient Greek and Roman (classical) art and the Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael.
If Roman sculpture and Italian Renaissance painting provided the gestures for the genre, it was the court portraiture of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck that came to exemplify the urbane portrait style practised by Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Pompeo Batoni, and then in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Singer Sargent and Augustus John. In the late nineteenth century the rhetoric of the Grand Manner was adopted not only by the nouveaux riches, but by ambitious middle class sitters as well. When especially ostentatious in presentation, typically in full-length works, this has also been referred to as the swagger portrait.