Mannerism and Its Greatest Artists

"Mannerism" was a notion first referred to by medieval artist Cennino Cennini in 1440; the word comes from the Italian maniera (meaning "manner" or "style"); by the 16th century our old friend Vasari was already speaking of it condescendingly. It had become a full-fledged movement of its own, a rupture caused by the Reformation's religious crisis.

But what is Mannerism?

It is a slippery, difficult-to-define realm that is defined as starting from about Raphael's death (1520) and ending with Caravaggio

Madonna with the Long Neck, Parmigiano

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From there, to put it simply, it seems to be a category for what was uncategorizable in the 16th century.  The High Renaissance wanted things to be grand and harmonious as things of Greek Antiquity were supposed to be. The Mannerists didn't, and that is probably one of the best ways to define this strange world.

Peculiar perspective, elongated figures, curious gestures, inexplicable settings, exaggerated body positions, eery lighting, apparently symbolic but utterly unknown figures, acid colors, compositions extending beyond the picture frame - the Mannerists employed all these techniques and more.

One thing is common to all these artists: they were trying to astonish the viewers accustomed to seeing things done a certain way in a painting. Looking again at our Parmigiano, in his time people were not used to seeing a large figure in the foreground and a bizarrely small one (and who is that supposed to be anyway?) in the background. And they certainly weren't prepared to see Parmigiano's strangely stretched Child in the Madonna's arms, above.

Yet with all these startling deformations and contrasts, the paintings remain beautiful, with long graceful figures, often staged to highlight their sensuality or their power.

But while a convenient category to toss these slightly disturbing artists and artworks into, the term itself remains a complex one for art historians (and, um...for us to use) - is it a period, a movement, a style? All these at once, I suppose.

Why did it come about?

Theirs was a time when there was a multiplication of images everywhere, owing to the iconoclastic crisis of the Reformation. There was a reaction of intolerance to these many images, but at the same time artists had to cope with their viewers eyes also growing accustomed to so much input. This drove them to push experimentation as far as they could, to find new solutions.

In this respect, it could be said that Mannerism is the first truly "modern" art movement. Their approach and their outlook was not so very different from what avant-garde artists were trying to accomplish in the 20th century.

Greatest Artists of Mannerism

22. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) was a German printmaker and painter who spent most of his career in the employment of the Electors of Saxony. He is best known for his portraiture of princes and important figures of the Protestant Reformation, including his close friend Martin Luther (portrait by his son).

23. The style of Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1566) was part of the rock bed of Flemish genre painting tradition. His works sought to expose Man’s weaknesses, such as lust or greed; he also painted portraits and religious subjects (detail from his “Allegorical Scene”).

24. Agnolo di Cosimo (1503-1572) is also called Il Bronzino. Court paintings in Europe remained under his influence for virtually a century (detail from his Allegory of the Triumph of Venus).

25. One of the leading artists to work at France’s Chateau of Fontainebleau, Italian Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) filled his paintings with elongated figures. He influenced French painting for most of the 16th century. (self-portrait).

26. Italian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), despite being both an accomplished artist and architect, is best known for having authored Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. These biographies set the standard for all subsequent art history writing (self-portrait).

27. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), a pioneer in Dutch genre painting, specialized in large paintings depicting landscapes of peasant scenes, although he painted religious subjects as well (supposed Bruegel self-portrait).

28. The innovative, imaginative works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) comprise portraits of strange characters composed of flowers, vegetables, books and fruit (self-portrait).

29. El Greco (1541-1614) is a major figure of the Spanish Renaissance and Mannerism. His unique and easily recognized style incorporates elongated figures and often surprising color combinations. He was not well appreciated in his own time, but in the 20th century was a significant influence on the Expressionists and Cubists.

30. Hendrik Goltzius (1558 –1617) was a Dutch printer whose work, especially his swelling lines and sophisticated technique, is said to have even rivaled that of Durer’s. He turned to painting in his later years. His exuberant, complex works made him a major figure in Northern Mannerism (self-portrait).

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