In the decades that followed the creation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, the sister arts tradition appeared to be as alive as it had been at the beginning of the century. The literary aspirations of British visual artists were nurtured by academic precepts which claimed that by rivalling and adapting the best poetic work, painters would assert their art’s intellectual value and prove that it was a ‘liberal’ occupation, rather than a ‘mechanical’ trade. While the Royal Academy promoted ‘history painting’ and the emulation of epic poetry as the best demonstration of the mental skills employed in painting, a new generation of visual artists sought inspiration in the most exalting and tumultuous productions of the British literary genius, and found in Shakespeare, Milton or Macpherson’s ...
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