« ForrigeFortsett »
sabjects, instead of thereby improving the public taste; hemust bave encountered poverty, and sunk himself in the opinion of those, who possessed the power of influencing society in his favour.
This fact is of importance. OPIB, in the Dictionary of Painters, mentions that Sir Joshua Reynolds was heard to say " he adapted his style to THE TASTE of the AGE,”. and “ that a man does not always do what he would, but what he can." This latter remark is to be found in his third Discourse: “Nor does a man always practise that which he esteems the best, but does that which he can 'best do.” The two extracts have the same meaning. They leave no doubt that this great master adapted his style to the taste of the age, and yielded to the Evil Genius of historical painting, the church exclusion of pictures, withoạt any vain attempt to struggle against it.
In his fifteenth and last Discourse, after having eloquently expressed bis esteem and veneration for the grand style of Michael Angelo, and having recommended the study of the works of that “ divine man,” be adds“ I have taken another course, one more suited to my abilities, and TO THE TASTE OF THE TIMES in which I live." This is conclusive. He acted wisely for himself. If he had made an effort to fight against the great national obstacle, he must have sunk, like Barry, into neglect and poverty. The great national exclusion which forced Reynolds to conform his practice to the taste of the times, is at this moment in existence, and in full force against every young enthusiastic genius, who has the temerity to desert the taste of the age, and study the grand style in the historical department.
We have already remarked, that the domestic style, in Greece, ancient Rome, and modern Italy, emanated from the public style, and partook of its grandeur. But there is no instance of a taste for the public style having been diffused by the domestic style, in any nation in which paintings were excluded from the churches. If the portraits of any great ancient or modern master could have wrought the latter effect, those of Reynolds and Gainsbo* rough would have produced it. But the contrary was notoriously the case. The domestic style, which, in its most popular branch, employs the pencil of Genius in preserving the resemblances of our relations and friends, deservedly exercises a general dominion over all orders in society; because it offers a virtuous gratification to the kindred affections, a pleasing homage to our self-love, and speaks a delightful language, that every where finds an interpreter in the buman heart. The vulgar attempts to decry portrait painting are founded in selfishness and ignorance. In England, where the family ties are so strictly regulated by moral and religious feelings, portrait painting, at present, is more justly valued and encouraged than in any other part of Europe. But, although this charming department of the arts exercises so universal a sway within the social circle, it has much less influence over the bigbest powers of the mind, by which public morals are promoted, the love of country is fostered, and that exalted sense of public duty roused, which prompts to great and noble actions.
From reflections founded in the experience of ages, we again proceed to facts. George the Second, from 1746 to 1760, the year of his decease, had seen many of Reynolds's fine portraits, and had also heard of his fame; but they failed to excite that monarch to notice the painter, to employ his pencil, or to extend his patronage to the fine arts. The grand landscapes of Wilson, and the rural scenery and rustic figures and cattle of GAINSBO
ROUGH, made as little impression at court, if ever heard of there, and were unnoticed by the public. HOGARTH, who, as a moral satirist in modern life, has never been approached, and whose Marriage-a-la-Mode and Lady's Last Stake evince the high and varied powers of bis pencil, was despised and decried as a painter. He derived his fame and income from his engravings. George the Second was distinguished for bis undaunted courage, saga. city, and affection for his subjects ; but it is stated that he had no taste for poetry or painting; and the nation was as little affected by the finest performances of the four great painters just mentioned. REYNOLDS, excepting in bis professed line of portrait painting, was not employed. His admirable fancy portraits and family groups failed to produce any taste for bistory painting in the nation. Not a solitary instance of a commission given to him to paint an historical picture occurred during his eight years' popular practice in London, during this reign. GAINSBOROUGH's landscapes and rustic figures remained unsold on his hands, or, when exposed to the hammer, sold for less than the price of the canvas; he was obliged, with an indignant scorn of the public, to take refuge from debt and difficulty, in portrait painting, for a livelihood. Wilson, in mean lodgings and poverty, could not, with all his genius, make out a living, except by hawking his pictures among the low furniture-brokers, for whatever they were pleased to give for them. Strong as the domestic style was in this reign, in the varied powers of REYNOLDS, WILSON, GAINSBOROUGH, and HOGARTH, it made no impression on the people in favour of British history painting.
GEORGE THE THIRD, in the first eight years of his reign, from 1760 to 1768, had seen a splendid series of
admirable portraits, in single figures and family groups, exhibited h REYNOLDS and GAINSBOROUGH, in the annual expibitions of the artists. There can be no doubt but that bis majesty was struck by their unrivalled grace, beauty, elegance, and enchanting truth of nature. The king had also seen a number of admirable landscapes and rustic
groups by Gainsborough, with a succession of Wilson's grandest productions. We want words and space to express our high sense of those three great masters' fine performances. The domestic style was then in its glory in this country; for Reynolds, Wilson and Gainsborough had advanced to their highest excellence in that style. But it is an incontrovertible truth, that they failed to call forth any public feeling for British history painting, or to awaken a desire in the royal breast to create a British school in that high department of the arts; to found a Royal Academy, or to set an example to the nobility and gentry, by extending his patronage to painting, sculpture, and architecture, as instruments of national improvement, elevation and glory.
Here we refer to facts proveable by incontrovertible public documents. The printed catalogues of the annual exhibitions, from 1760 to 1768, contain a list of the fine pictures exhibited by Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Wilson during those years. If any portraits, landscapes, or fancy groups of portraits, or of rustic figures from nature, could have overcome the inveterate prejudice against British history painting, excited by the long established CHURCH EXCLUSION OF PICTURES, and have roused England to a public feeling for that high department of the arts, as a means of moral instruction and national character, the works of those three great masters in the domestic style must have had that happy effect. But
although their unrivalled specimens of the domestic style immortalized the genius of those three great British painters, and nobly prepared the way for agreeable fancy subjects, it is a record of notoriety that they altogether failed to produce a public taste or feeling for history painting in the mind of the king and the nation. His majesty, although in 1768 he had been eight years on the throne, had never honoured Reynolds with an interview, nor employed bis pencil. It has been truly stated (by Opie,) that, during his practice in London, “at his table, for above thirty years, were occasionally assembled all the taste, talents, and genius of the three kingdoms; men who were remarkable for their attainments in literature or the arts, for their exertions in the pulpit or at the bar, in the senate or the field:"_MALONE, BURKE, NORTHCOTE, and FARRINGTON confirm this account. Yet, among the mass of illustrious statesmen and divines, legislators, admirals and generals, noblemen and gentlemen of the highest rank and fortune, talents and attainments, who were personally intimate with Reynolds, there was not one, from his first outset in London in 1746 to 1768, who had given him a commission to paint an historical picture.
Again we refer to the printed catalogues of the Annual Exbibitions, to show that Reynolds did not finish and exhibit bis Count Ugolino until the year 1773: even then it was a mere chance which induced him to paint that first essay in history. NORTHCOTE, FARRINGTON, and CUMBERLAND, his friends, have established the fact, that the picture of UGOLINO did not originate in the mind of Reynolds; it was suggested to him either by BURKE or GOLDSMITH, and was painted without a commission. It is, also, known that the idea struck his literary friend, casually, when passing through his picture gallery, on