Mannerism art first appeared during the sixteenth century. Characterized by elegance, carefully contrived compositions, and sensuous distortions of the human figure, it transformed Western art.
The style also marked the end of classical Renaissance oil paintings. Mannerism later gave way to the Baroque Art Movement (starting in the seventeenth century).
But who were these artists, and what are some of the most famous Mannerism paintings? This brief introduction explores Mannerism’s unique position in the History of Art.
The word “mannerism” comes from the Italian phrase “maniera”, meaning “style”. It emerged in the sixteenth century, partly in response to the Renaissance focus on faithfully depicting nature.
As a result, some art historians refer to Mannerism as the “stylish style”. This unusual description refers to its emphasis on purposeful distortion as opposed to strictly realistic details.
Giorgio Vasari, the famed Italian Renaissance painter, writer, and historian, believed excellent painting required virtuoso technique alongside refinement and luxury. Consequently, he emphasized the individual artist’s intellectual decisions, exemplified by the Mannerist style.
In line with Vasari’s academic focus, careful observation of nature wasn’t crucial to Mannerist painters. Instead, this naturalistic approach characterized Renaissance oil paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Raphael’s Madonna of Goldfinch.
Instead, Mannerism focuses on the individual artist’s ability to elaborate (and even improve) on the natural world. This emphasis defined Mannerism paintings.
This change in focus stemmed from artists’ changing position in society. During the early Renaissance period, the public viewed artists as skilled craftsmen. As the centuries progressed, however, painters and sculptors increased in respect, recognition, and financial reward.
By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo stood alongside religious thinkers, poets, and writers. This new climate of appreciation for the arts fostered the Mannerist focus on individual artistic intellect and elegance.
On the face of it, Mannerism paintings appear naturalistic. They represent nature and people. However, rather than focusing on the harmonious classicism of masters such as Raphael, this new generation of artists created artificial compositions.
Often featuring asymmetrical designs and gracefully distorted forms, these techniques showed individual artists’ sophisticated elegance. Stretched and elongated bodies, exaggerated coloring, unusual viewpoints, and sensuously flowing shapes were all standard.
This “stylish style” spread all over Europe. In Britain, Mannerism influenced court painting under Elizabeth I. It particularly influenced the artificial and decorative miniature creations of artists such as Nicholas Hilliard. It also inspired later Baroque paintings and their intensely embellished, ornate style.
The Madonna with the Long Neck (c.1535-40) is a famous example of a Mannerism painting. Created by the Italian Mannerist master Parmigianino, it shows the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus seated on her lap.
Parmigianino elongates Mary’s neck and torso to make her appear as graceful as possible. Indeed, the art historian E. H. Gombrich describes the Holy Virgin’s neck as “like that of a swan”. Parmigianino similarly paints the baby Jesus with a large, elongated body.
Gombrich describes how Parmigianino demonstrated that Classical “perfect harmony” wasn’t the only approach to art. Instead, he created something “new and unexpected”. In this way, Mannerism artists were the first genuinely modern painters.
In addition to Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, here are three more examples of Mannerism paintings.
Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, also known as “Rosso Fiorentino”, painted this early Mannerist painting. Even early in his career, Rosso Fiorentino displayed a strongly anti-classical approach to art. He favored powerful, dramatic compositions over balanced Renaissance designs.
Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro demonstrates this approach perfectly. In his biography of Rosso Fiorentino, Vasari describes it as a painting of “several beautiful nude figures… depicting highly commendable things”.
The artwork shows Moses defending seven young women (the daughters of Jethro) against some shepherds trying to drive them away. Moses, depicted as a Herculean Hero, has a highly muscular body. The painting’s vertical format and diagonal lines accentuate the elongated forms and emotional struggle.
Even in calmer paintings, for instance, Cherub Playing a Lute, Rosso Fiorentino creates an asymmetrical composition emphasizing diagonal lines. Contrasted against a jet-black background, this adds drama to even the most innocent subjects.
Among Arcimboldo paintings, one series particularly stands out. The unusual “seasons” series depicts men in profile, created entirely from fruit and vegetables.
As Mannerist artworks, these paintings blend still life and portraiture. They slyly mock the classical art popular at the time.
Despite the summer scene and plentiful harvest, the man’s eyes are empty and eerie. It’s a troubling artwork with no easy explanation. His cheeks (made up of peaches) are plump and round, while hay sticks up from his collar.
Arcimboldo paintings of other “seasons” portraits include Spring, Autumn, and the terrifyingly grotesque Winter.
El Greco View of Toledo is a perfect example of a Mannerist landscape. While Mannerism paintings often featured the human form, the style was equally applicable to the natural world.
The vertical format is highly unusual for a landscape painting, stretching the buildings, hills, and trees into the sky. Alongside Van Gogh’s Starry Night, it’s also one of Western art’s most enigmatic depictions of the sky. Indeed, El Greco’s dark skies contrast with the vibrant green hills, adding to the drama and dynamism of the artwork.
El Greco’s Mannerist approach is also apparent in his religious paintings. The Tears of St Peter (c.1587) and Saint Sebastian (c.1576-1579) masterfully present distorted yet elegant human forms.
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