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In Art, What Is Mannerism?

Mannerism is an artistic style that emerged in the late Renaissance, characterized by elongated forms, exaggerated poses, and a heightened sense of drama. It reflects a departure from the harmonious proportions and balance of the High Renaissance, favoring tension and emotion over realism. Curious about how Mannerism set the stage for modern art? Dive deeper to explore its enduring influence.
C. K. Lanz
C. K. Lanz

Mannerism is a term developed in the 20th century to describe a period of painting and architecture prominent primarily in Italy from 1520 to 1600. Stylistically, mannerism includes a variety of schematic approaches to painting that flouted the rules of classical art established during the Renaissance. A work in the mannerist style is generally based on intellectual preconceptions instead of direct visual perceptions. Additionally, this period is notable for the artificial rather than naturalist qualities of paintings. Art historians do not agree on a definition of mannerism and continue to debate whether the term is applicable to early modern poetry and music as well as painting and architecture.

The term was likely coined by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and adopted by German art historians at the dawn of the 20th century. Burckhardt was attempting to categorize 16th-century Italian art, a group of works that seemed to be evolving away from the styles characteristic of the High Renaissance. Rather than emphasize the observation of nature, artists were starting to favor their own intellect, invention, and technique. This was a partial result of the artistic profession’s increasing societal prestige.

Woman painting
Woman painting

A mannerist painting is characterized by the elongated forms of figures, irrational settings, and a lack of perspective. The lighting in most mannerist paintings can be described as theatrical. Virtuoso technique created compositions of clashing color; emotions; and combinations of Christian, mythological, and Classical themes.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, also known by his Spanish nickname El Greco or the Greek, is arguably the most well-known mannerist painter. After imbuing his style with mannerist elements in Venice, he traveled to Toledo in Spain, where he remained until his death in 1614. El Greco’s otherworldly figures are easily recognized by their extremely elongated,and his typical works include almost phantasmagorical colors and an irrational perspective. Time and space are condensed in El Greco’s work, which aims primarily to express religious tensions by dramatizing rather than describing.

Another representative mannerist artist is the Italian painter Tintoretto or Jacopo Comin. His work is characterized by muscular figures making dramatic gestures and bold perspective. For example, in his painting of Jesus’s last supper, Tintoretto moves the iconic table and its diners from the center of the composition. He pulls back, revealing all the cacophony and motion of servers and other guests surrounding Christ and his Apostles. Heaven and angels share the same space with humans as they observe the scene.

As mannerism began to fade from favor in the late 16th century, it was gradually replaced by the Baroque style. A version known as Northern Mannerism was sustained in regions north of the Alps well into the 17th century. Mannerism is also a general term for any idiosyncratic element of an author’s style that sets it apart. Milton’s Latinesque syntax and Hemingway’s rhythmic prose are two examples of qualities that make their writing easily recognizable and could therefore also be called mannerisms.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Mannerism in the context of art history?

Mannerism is an artistic style that emerged in the late Renaissance, around the 1520s, and prevailed until the end of the 16th century. It is characterized by a complex composition, with elongated figures and exaggerated poses that convey emotion and drama. Mannerism often involves a departure from the balanced harmony and proportion found in High Renaissance art, favoring tension and instability. This style is seen as a reaction against the classical norms and an exploration of artistic expression.

Who are some of the most notable artists associated with Mannerism?

Notable Mannerist artists include Jacopo da Pontormo, whose work is known for its unusual color schemes and elongated figures, and Rosso Fiorentino, recognized for his expressive, often unsettling compositions. Parmigianino, with his famous "Madonna with the Long Neck," exemplifies the elegance and grace of Mannerist proportions. Tintoretto and El Greco also contributed to the style with their dynamic compositions and emotional intensity.

How did Mannerism differ from the Renaissance art that preceded it?

Mannerism diverged from Renaissance art by moving away from the pursuit of ideal beauty and harmonious proportions. Instead, Mannerist artists experimented with spatial complexity, distorted perspectives, and figures that often appeared to be stretched or contorted. While Renaissance art focused on clarity and order, Mannerism embraced ambiguity and a sense of artificiality, creating a bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque period that followed.

Can you give examples of Mannerist works and what makes them distinctive?

Examples of Mannerist works include Pontormo's "Entombment of Christ," which is notable for its crowded composition and lack of a central focal point. Parmigianino's "Madonna with the Long Neck" is distinctive for its elongated proportions and elegant, stylized poses. Another example is Bronzino's "Allegory with Venus and Cupid," which features complex iconography and a polished, almost surreal quality. These works all showcase the Mannerist tendency to prioritize style and sophistication over naturalism.

What impact did Mannerism have on the development of European art?

Mannerism played a crucial role in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque period. It challenged artists to think beyond the constraints of naturalism and introduced a new level of emotional expression and complexity in composition. The style's emphasis on artificiality and virtuosity paved the way for the dramatic flair of Baroque art. Mannerism's influence can be seen in the theatricality and movement that characterize much of 17th-century European art.

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      Woman painting