How to Identify a Mannerist Painting

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Mannerism, a 16th century European art movement, rejected Renaissance classical ideals such as naturalism, balance and harmony. Mannerism arose in troubled, changing times; the plague, the Reformation and Rome sacking Florence in 1527 were key events, which might account for the strange and unsettling feeling that one gets from the work. Identify Mannerist paintings by following these steps.

  • Study some of the Mannerist painters like Jacopa da Pontermo, Agnolo Bronzino, Parmigianino and Rosso Fiorentino.

  • Notice the subject matter. Artists emphasized the intellectual. Use of Christian and mythological iconography, proverbs and folklore are common.

  • Look for subjective expression. The expressions of the figures are psychological, sometimes tormented. Spirituality is emphasized and yet a seductive undertone exists.

  • Consider the use of space. The composition is crowded and not as realistic as during the Renaissance. Space is flattened and compressed. Perspective is not as important. There is a blurring of boundaries, creating infinity.

  • Note the proportions of the figure. The painters distorted their figures and used exaggerated poses. The figures are lengthened, twisting and often in strange body positions. Often the heads are too small for the bodies.

  • Recognize how color is used. It expresses emotion. The use of color is bright and arbitrary. Colors often clashed and lighting is sometimes harsh.

  • Observe the details. Mannerist artists are technically proficient, having learned from the Renaissance masters. You can see the evidence in the surface details, coloring and technical aspects like foreshortening.

Tips & Warnings

  • Compare a Renaissance painter to a Mannerist painter to clarify the style. Choose Da Vinci, Raphael or Titian.
  • Consider the individualism of Mannerist painters like El Greco and Giuseppe Arcimoldo. Their styles can easily be distinguished from the High Renaissance style.
  • Mannerist paintings are active. The proportions and space add movement to the painting.

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