Art in the period of Jane Austen

The author Jane Austen is famous for her novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. She is, to this day, wildly popular with readers. Her works stand the test of time for their comedy and their domestic realism, but many people don’t know about the context of her work. She was writing satire in response to a popular novel form of the day called the sentimental novel. Sentimental novels were closely related to Gothic novels in that the authors wished to evoke a strong emotional response in the reader through what some have called a “language of tears.” The novels feature dramatic plot points in order to progress feelings of emotion more than any workings of plot. In some ways these novels were the forerunner of the romantic comedy genre. They were designed to teach conduct to young ladies on the proper way to behave.

In this we may get a glimpse into the lighthearted anarchy of Jane Austen’s writing style in her satires of current popular fiction. Critics argue that Austen’s novels did not always satirize the genre of sentimental fiction, and actually might have lingered upon the edge of it at times, just with more realism and less sensationalism than other authors might have attempted. It’s widely agreed that her writing was a transition point toward realism that began to dominate the literary scene in the 19th century. So the novel pendulum can first be seen swinging away from the rationality of the Augustan Age, into sentimentality, and then moving back again with Jane Austen and others toward the dawn of realism.

Some of Austen’s contemporaries in this field were Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, as well as Charles Dickens.

Austen lived through the era known as the Regency Period which is a subsection of the Georgian Era and refers specifically to the period in which King George III was unfit to rule and so his son, the Prince of Wales, exercised a regency to rule in his stead. It was a time of social upheaval and change, but also a time in which great achievements were made in the realm of architecture and fine art. The wars which dominate the scene are the Napoleonic Wars. Although the Prince Regent was too extravagant and nearly bankrupted the royal court, he was a great patron of the arts and this, plus new technological developments in printing, had a lasting effect on culture for both good and ill.

Park Crescent

Example of
Regency Architecture

In architecture, John Nash was well known for his work in London (and Brighton), particularly London’s Buckingham Palace but also Regent’s Park and Regent Street as well. Nash was a Georgian architect who emphasized lightness and elegance. Motifs that came into prominence during this period were Egyptian elements due to Napoleonic expeditions into Egypt around 1798, as well as a resurgence of interest in classical motifs, both Greek and Roman, due to new archaeological expeditions popular with the upper class. Bamboo and lacquer work from Japan and China were also on display at prominent locations of the British Isles.

Example of

Example of
Picturesque art

Nash also championed the idea of the Picturesque in art, which was a genre of art that wouldn’t fit properly into either the beautiful or the sublime genres that already existed. Picturesque scenes were too rough to be intellectually beautiful, and too mannerly over all to be Gothic, as in suitably ‘awe-full’ or awful, terror-filled in fact. Picturesque work actually combined a perfect marriage of classical harmony in compositional structure, with a rugged savagery in appearance at the corners or in the deep shadows of the piece. Inspiration usually came from abroad, for example, any travelers through Italy would have called that landscape Picturesque because its classical pinnacles of form with its wild coastlines are a nice example. While there is definitely merit to the understanding of this extremely narrow concept, one might also call it practically semantics. Perhaps it is best to use an existing quote from history. As Thomas Gray wrote in 1765 of the Scottish Highlands: “The mountains are ecstatic. None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror.”

Lastly, in the field of art, there was a marked interest in naturalism. People were just beginning to see nature for its own simple beauties. For example, birds were painted in murals or depicted in decorations in simple background settings with less elaborate and more natural details, so that one’s eye could focus on the natural realism of the birds and appreciate their realistic beauty.

The next time you sit down with one of Jane Austen’s books, or you watch a movie adaptation of her work, it may be possible to see into the background of the fiction and identify the social and cultural context in which Jane Austen was writing. Her work often has been considered a well-penned miniaturization of the Regency Era, focusing primarily on the economic struggles of women in domestic situations, but the larger, social backdrop is present at every strawberry-picking party (naturalism), in the carefully chosen setting of a drawing room argument (Regency architecture), during a tour of the Lake Country (Picturesque), or in the conversation and depiction of strangers, clergymen and attractive suitors (cultural and societal realities on the fringe of a miniature and delightfully ironic world).