Style and Manner

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in November of 2021.

Although this site is mostly all Sight-Size all the time, there are important digressions. This article is one and may be of interest to all representational artists.

pont-depJacopo Pontormo, Deposition (1528), Cappella Capponi, Santa Felicità, Florence.
Pontormo is classified as an Italian Mannerist. He was strongly influenced by Michelangelo.

I was taught that style was a choice an artist makes whereas manner is something which is not chosen but naturally occurring. Manner, therefore, was to be avoided. In fact, a part of one’s training in Sight-Size is subduing subconscious mannerisms in the student. You must learn to objectively represent nature before you can successfully engage in subjective representations.

Do you invariably and subconsciously make your shapes too large, too wide, to narrow, etc.? That’s a manner. But, if you intentionally chose to, that’s style.1 Of course not all art periods, movements, or artists followed such rules nor even agreed on the definitions of the two terms.

Currently the definitions are usually given as follows:

  • Style is a distinctive manner of expression or a particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed.2
  • Manner is defined as a method of artistic execution or mode of presentation: style.3

So apparently style is manner and manner is style?

pont-visJacopo Pontormo, The Visitation (detail).

In the early 1900s a prominent American sculptor, F. Wellington Ruchstuhl, defined the two terms in an article for The Art World magazine titled, Style and Manner in Art: A Definition.4 Note that the article is long and I have abridged it for clarity. I have also interspersed a few of my own comments in italics. The caps are courtesy of Ruckstuhl.

STYLE IN ART IS A MATTER OF FUNDAMENTAL COMPOSITION, OF THE ARRANGEMENT OF LINES, MASSES AND COLOR; OF WORDS, OF SOUNDS AND OF MOVEMENTS INDICATING A DEPARTURE FROM THE TRUTH OF NATURE AND FROM THE COMMONPLACE.

MANNER IN ART IS A MATTER OF SUPERFICIAL TECHNICAL EXECUTION, INDICATING A DEPARTURE FROM THE TRUTH OF NATURE AND FROM THE COMMONPLACE.

Notice that both of Ruckstuhl’s definitions end with the same clause: a departure from the truth of nature and from the commonplace.

An exact photograph of anything in Nature has no style or manner. Why? Because it is a mechanically truthful copy of the thing photographed. An absolutely exact copy of anything in nature by means of painting, assuming that possible, would have no style nor manner (which, by the way, is one of the goals for doing cast drawings and cast paintings while a student).

Ruckstuhl then fleshes these definitions out a bit.

Style

Let us suppose a painter sits down to paint a landscape. So long as he copies the composition of what is before him, no style enters into his work. Why? Because he makes no changes in the composition. But as soon as he leaves out of his composition a branch of a tree or a shrub or a rock, style does enter his work. Why? Because he departed from the truth of Nature by taking out something. Style would also enter his work if he should change the direction of a fence or the height of a hill, because he then also departed from the truth of Nature by adding something that was not in the Nature picture before him.

In other words, either by subtraction or addition he re-composed what Nature offered to his view, and to the extent to which he did this, viz.: departed from the truth of Nature by subtraction from or addition to the composition, so would style enter his work. Therefore, the more he left out in the representation of the scene before him of the facts of Nature, the more style he would have in his work, and the more he added of his own imagination the more style he would put into his work.

Hence, style is fundamentally a matter of composition and, inversely, composition is stylization.

pont-spJacopo Pontormo, Self Portrait (detail).

Manner

Now, as to Manner in art with which style is so frequently confounded: Manner has nothing to do with style, because it is altogether a matter of surface technical execution, while style is a matter of fundamental composition or arrangement.

It is true that in the surface execution an artist may, through awkwardness or indifference, depart from the model before him in matters of small detail, and so impinge on the function of composition and stylization; but this will be so slight as to make it not worth considering if he aims at truth.

To explain: Suppose ten good painters were told to paint a landscape from exactly the same point of view and make an exact copy on pain of death for non-exactness. Suppose each painted every object before him as it existed. Each would have a different manner of representing the trees, shrubs, houses, hills, clouds, etc. Why? because Nature has ordained that no two men on earth shall feel and act and be exactly alike. Variety is the deepest hunger of Nature, because it is the fundamental element of all beauty.

One painter would paint his trees with many detailed leaves, another with very few detailed leaves, or leaves of a different character. The observer would recognize that every one of the ten paintings were portraits of the scene, none having any style whatever because none showed any change nor composition through subtraction or addition of one or more objects. But still, each would have a different touch, different tone of color, different values of color, etc. In short, a different manner.

Suppose all followed the composition of every drawing and object exactly. One would have a color almost exactly natural and the others’ colors more or less unlike those of Nature.

That is, their composition would be exactly alike, but the surface execution (the manner of representation) would be different in all the ten pictures. Now, just in ratio of the degree to which their manner of representation produced a result different from that which Nature produced, would their manners be a greater or less departure from the truth of Nature.

As Ruckstuhl defines them, the terms style and manner match what I was taught. Style is choice, manner is not.

pat-sargLeft: Photo of Coventry Patmore.
Right: Sargent’s painting of Coventry Patmore (detail), 1894.

Using Ruckstuhl’s definitions allow us to see that Sargent’s painting of Coventry Patmore is both stylized and mannered. Sargent deviated from nature by elongating the shapes. That ‘style’ was quite common during the age in which he painted and most of Sargent’s contemporaries stylized their work similarly.

Going back further in time to 1854, F.W. Fairholt gives us the following definitions in his book, A Dictionary of Art Terms5 (paraphrased by me):

  • Style. The peculiar manner in which an artist expresses his ideas . . . it is exhibited in his choice of forms and mode of treating them, and is determined in different ways, according to the changes of thought at different times and stages of its development.
  • Manner. A peculiarity of habit, implying a kind of reproach against the painter. . . the peculiar mode of using the brush in painting.

He then adds, “The manner of a master is nothing but his peculiar way of choosing, imagining and representing the subjects of his pictures. It includes what is called his style and handling: that is, the ideal part and the mechanical part, which give the character to his work . . .”

Minus the addition to his definitions all seemed to make sense. But that addition confuses the two and brings them more inline with the present day definitions: style is manner and manner is style.

Isn’t clarity wonderful a wonderful thing?


1 The Mannerists, who idealized Michelangelo, seemed to have been exempted from this pattern of subconscious influence as they clearly chose their manner. Or, perhaps not. Maybe Michelangelo was mannered and his followers simply attempted to ape his manner which then became their style? Perhaps calling them Stylists as opposed to Mannerists would make more sense?
2 Style, defined by Merriam-Webster.
3 Manner, defined by Merriam-Webster.
4 Style and Manner in Art: A Definition, F. Wellington Ruckstuhl, The Art World, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Dec., 1916), pp. 172-176.
5 A Dictionary of Art Terms, F.W. Fairholt, Strahan & Co., London, 1854.

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