« ForrigeFortsett »
that the British School stands far above all contemporary art, and unequalled by the best of the old Dutch and Flemish schools, in the domestic style. We would rather stimulate our countrymen to foster fresh excellence in this style, than abate their admiration of the chief artists in this tasteful and agreeable department. We have lamented by the unjustifiable attempts to decry the domestic style, with the narrow hope of, thereby, creating a taste for the public style, in this country. We rejoice that these injudicious attempts have wholly failed, as they deserved to fail. The domestic style will ever be hallowed, in its proper sphere, by the refinements of social taste and the force of the kindred affections.
We are of opinion that no country or state in the world contains within itself so rich a fund of intellectual and physical means for advancing the two styles, the domestic and public, to their highest point of excellence, as the British empire. Their inestimable resources have been hitherto only kept down by the church exclusion of pictures. Let the State remove or counteract the evil, and the triumph of the British School will be completed.
Of the moral effect produced by the grandeur and sentiment of elevated historical pictures, in contradistinction from those subjects which are addressed to the EYE only, there is not, by any means, a just distinction sufficiently impressed upon the public mind. We apply the term and praise of historical painting to a number of pictures in the annual exhibitions, which belong to a different class. This sort of erroneous classification paralyses exertion, and tends to deceive the public into a notion of a British historical school, now flourishing in this country, when that school is on the very verge of extinction! Sir Joshua Reynolds, after having described the great style of true history
painting, proceeds, in his Third Discourse, to enumerate the class of subjects which are not historical. The weight of bis authority on this important point is a sufficient reason for bere inserting it :-"As for the various departments of painting, which do not presume to make such high pretensions, they are many. None of them are without their merit, though none enter into competition with this universal presiding idea of the art. The painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters, and who express with precision the various shades of passion, as they are exhibited by vulgar minds (such as we see in the works of Hogarth), deserve great praise; but as their genius bas been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise which we give must be as limited as its object. The Merry-making or Quarrelling of the Boors of Teniers; the same sort of productions of Brouwer, or Ostade, are excellent in their kind; and the excellence and its praise will be in proportion, as, in those limited subjects and peculiar forms, they introduce more or less of the expression of those passions, as they appear in general and more enlarged nature. This principle may be applied to the Battle-pieces of Borgognone, the French Gallantries of Watteau, and even beyond the exhibition of animal life, to the Landscapes of Claude Lorraine, and the Sea Views of Vandervelde. All these painters have, in general, the same right, in different degrees, to the name of a painter, which a satirist, an epigrammatist, a sonneteer, a writer of pastorals, or descriptive poetry, has to that of a poet.”
We admire the general candour and correctness of this classification ; although we think Hogarth by far too lightly mentioned ; and we regret that this divisional order has been overlooked or forgotten since the decease of the great master whose precepts can never be too much valued nor studied. An ipattention to this classification has done much mischief, by mis-directing the public mind, and deceiving many artists. While the public style of history painting has been almost wholly neglected and unpatronized, our honest self-love and commendable national pride bave unconsciously led us into the flattering notion that we were encouraging the public style, or highest department of the arts. We have conceived that all was accomplished, when, in reality, we were only multiplying proofs of British superiority in the agreeable, the pleasurable and ornamental branches of the domestic style. The admirable productions of the British pencil, in the domestic style, have triumph. antly proved that British genius is fully competent to vie with the “great masters of the renowned ages” in the public style, if duly patronized.
We have showed that the late King, from 1760 to 1768, had seen all the finest works of Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Wilson, and the whole force of the one hundred and forty-one artists of “ The Incorporated Society." His Ma. jesty bad viewed all these, without having been moved to give a commission to any one of the three great British masters. The whole force of the domestic style, in its youthful freshness and glory, annually failed, during those eight years, to induce the royal amateur to take an active part in favour of the British School. We stand here upon the impregnable ground of facts. His majesty had also seen, in the royal palaces, and in the collections of the nobility, a number of fine historical pictures, by the most celebrated old masters. The cartoons of Raphael had been under his eye from bis childhood, and were then in his possession. These fine works of the great old masters were esteemed and highly valued by the King, but they were valued as the interests of a past age, and of a foreign nation, embarked on the distant ocean of time. In their productions neither the British sovereign por his people had any share ; their glories belonged to generations in the dust, and to another country. They were destitute of a living interest for the royal breast, for the British nobility, and for the British nation. We speak here of human nature, such as man is to be found every where. In the same manner, the glories of the Capella Sistina were admired at Rome, while painting and sculpture, as we have men. tioned, declined and sunk in the Eternal City.
But the effect upon the King's mind, on viewing WEST's picture of Agrippina landing with the ashes of her husband Germanicus, at Brundusium, corresponded with the dignity of the story; and, as the performance of a British subject, a grand historical composition by a BRITISH PENCIL, it made its appeal, at once, to the public spirit and LIVING INTERESTS in the royal breast. The story was well calculated to impress his mind with all the memorable associations connected with the august destinies of the mightiest empire in the ancient world. His Majesty became an immediate party in the fate of a great prince, equally celebrated for his public and private virtues, as a son, a husband and father, a subject, a great commander, and a protector of his people. A recollection of his victories, his learning, his love of the arts, and the tragical death with which the barbarous envy of a tyrant terminated his heroic achievements in the very prime of his life, are so intimately connected with an understanding of the story, that no event could have been been more happily selected to produce a powerful first impression
young monarch of a free people. It is a recorded fact, that the King expressed his deep feeling to the Queen,
the Archbishop of York, and to Mr. West. struck by the power of that art, and by the genius of the artist, which brought before his eyes, with all the “ pomp, , pride and circumstance” of reality, so signal an event, at the end of seventeen hundred years. The King's satisfaction was extreme. His taste and judgment, as an admirer of the arts, and his pride as a patriot King, were equally gratified. The painter stood before him, a young British subject, in the twenty-ninth year of his age, the first British subject who had ever completely triumphed over the anti-British and anti-contemporarian prejudices of the Continent, by producing a grand historical composition, uniting the learning and judgment of the schools, with the genius of a young enthusiast devoted to that high department of the arts. The story was precisely of that class which Sir Joshua Reynolds has, in his Fourth Discourse, described as belonging to the grand style, and requiring the highest powers of invention.—" With respect to the choice, no subject can be proper that is not generally interesting. It ought to be either some eminent instance of heroic action or heroic suffering. There must be something either in the action, or in the object, in which men are universally concerned, and which powerfully strikes upon the public sympathy.”—Vol. i. p. 80.)
We here, again repeat, that we stand upon the strong ground of facts. The effect of West's Agrippina upon the King's mind was not merely productive of praise, of a gracious compliment, and as gracious a dismissal:- the King expressed a desire to take history painting under his special protection and patronage. His Majesty honoured Mr. West with a commission to paint the grand historical subject of Regulus taking leave of the Roman Senate preparatory to his return to Carthage, a devoted sacrifice