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seeing a head, painted from a well-known model, as a study of colouring and character, but intended for no more than a lesson of improvement. The chance remark of the moment, “ the expression of that head reminds me of the Ugolino of Dante,” was not designed as a hint for Reynolds to work the supposed miracle of converting a small piece of canvas into a larger, and to hammer oat a single head into an historical picture. The hint, however, was not thrown away upon Reynolds, who had been then nearly five years President of the Royal Academy, and felt himself called upon, as head of that national institution, to exbibit some specimen in history. He had the small canvas inlaid upon a larger piece, to make room for the figures of the dying sons, and thus changed a study of a head, or rather a portrait from individual nature, into his first attempt at historical painting. It
It is certain, also, that after that fine picture had been exhibited, REYNOLDS received so little encouragement from all his great and noble friends, to exchange the popular and lucrative practice of portrait painting for history, that his Ugolino, although praised and admired, lay a long time unsold in his gallery upon his hands. While his admiring friends gave him credit for powers, (in the words of Edmund Burke), “equal to the great masters of the renowned. ages,” they were contented to let those high powers lie dormant in their noblest field, from 1746 until some years after, 1773, when his. Ugolino was exhibited; they called for no bigher demonstration of his admirable genius than their portraits, either in single heads, figures, or fanciful groups. Even to the last year of his life, this antihistorical spirit remained in full force with few exceptions.
Again we state facts. Of his very few historical pictures, or those which have been incorrectly classed
as historical, the greater part were painted for foreigners, or for commercial men in this country: of the small remainder it is uncertain whether he ever received a commission for more than five or six from English noblemen or gentlemen. They were painted on the precarious chance of finding a purchaser among the visitors of his picture gallery. The Ugolinó we have noticed as a spark of historical fire, struck out by chance. His Infant Hercules strangling the Serpents, was painted on a commission for the Empress of Russia, for £.1500, the highest sum ever paid to him for a picture; and thus the fame that could not abate the anti-historical prejudice begotten at home, by church-exclusion, reached the cold regions of the north, and was there honoured with peculiar distinction. Mr. Barry and Mr. Prince Hoare justly class this picture, which forms a principal ornament in the Imperial Palace at Petersburgh, as Sir Joshua Reynolds's chief historical work. Prince Potemkin gave him a commission for the Continence of Scipio, and also for the Snake in the Grass. Count d'Ademar purchased the Girl with a Mousetrap. M. de Calonne gave him a commission for Mrs. Siddons in the character of the Tragic Muse. Noel Desenfans purchased the Girl with a Cat; and the Girl with a Bird's Nest, and a Boy praying was purchased by Monsieur Chaumier. All the historical and fancy pictures here enumerated were painted for or purchased by foreigners, who paid homage to that power which his own countrymen overlooked. The Vestal Tuccia, the Holy Family, and the Gleaners, were painted on commissions for Mr. Macklin, as a commercial speculation; and he received similar commissions from Alderman Boydell for Robin Goodfellow, Cardinal Beaufort, and the Cauldron Scene in Macbeth. When we take away the preceding pictures and those fancy subjects which he made presents of, or which remained unsold at his death, and when we consider the spirit of the time, there is strong reason to believe the current opinion that this great master did not receive ten commissions for fancy or historical paintings, from every other rank and order of his countrymen, in the whole course of his forty-six years' practice. We have not been able to obtain any certain proof of bis having received five. For evidences of this utter disinclination to give any employment to British historical painting, we confidently refer to the lists of his pictures, published by his several biographers, and to the affirmation of his surviving contemporaries.
It is, also, a memorable fact, that, although all the most eminent literary men, who flourished at the same period, were in habits of friendship and intimacy with Reynolds, they partook so largely of the anti-historical spirit of the day, in painting, that their various publications bear no evidence of any effort or desire to abate that gross prejudice or to excite a public feeling in favour of history painting. The works of Edmund Burke, Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Malone, Cumberland, Murphy, Garrick, and all his other literary friends, are evidences that, on this particular point, they were frozen up by the spirit of the age. They formed the power which influenced the periodical press of the realm, but they never directed that formidable engine against the CHURCH EXCLUSION of pictures. They never employed their energies to introduce a public taste for British history painting. The Throne and the Senate, the Church and the Bar, the Literature and the Press, the landed, the monied and the commercial interests, were steeled by the same prejudice, during the first eight years of the late reign. After this mass of testimony, it may appear unnecessary to add this characteristic fact; Malone mentions that Sir Joshua Reynolds had lived "on terms of great intimacy” with Edmund Burke, for more than thirty years. Yet, we find that BURKE, with all the theory of the sublime and beautiful in his head, was dead at heart to the interests of historical painting. Like the rest, he never gave any higher employment to the pencil of the great master, bis friend, than that of painting his portrait, and even that but a little below the bust.
If Raphael, Michael Angelo, Correggio, and Titian, had been born in England, and had confined their pencils from the year 1760 to 1768, to painting portraits, fancy subjects, and landscapes, they must have failed to make an impression in favour of history painting. If Reynolds had devoted his pencil to history in 1752, when he finally settled in London, without the patronage of the crown, he must have lived in obscurity and indigence, and died in want. He must have sunk under the anti-historical spirit of the age, which, with respect to the fine arts, was formed by the Church exclusion of pictures, and which spirit overruled every other consideration of reason, public improvement, and national glory.
We have already observed, that GAINSBOROUGH was in the flower of his life, and professional excellence, from 1760 to 1768. He painted a series of his very finest pictures during that period. Many of them by their beauties, remind us of the style of Rubens, Murillio, Hobbima, Ruysdael, Everdingen, and Wynants. But they were then so undervalued, and so rarely purchased, even at prices which little more than paid for canvas and colours, that he, too, must have lingered through a life of neglect and indigence, if he had not made his timely escape from painting landscapes and rustic figures, and found full employment for his pencil in portrait painting.
OF WILSON's fate, let Fuseli, the eloquent Professor of Painting, speak for us: “He (Wilson) lived and died nearer to indigence than ease, and as an asylum from the severest wants incident to age, and decay of powers, was reduced to solicit the Librarian's place, in the academy of which he was one of the brightest ornaments." SHEE, with manly sympathy, adverts to this great master's sufferings:
While kind too late
Consigns with sorrow his illustrious name." “ The place of librarian to the Royal Academy, the whole emoluments of wbich amounts but to fifty pounds per year, was conferred upon him to eke out a mere subsistence!!!”
It has been observed, that the pictures of REYNOLDS, GAINSBOROUGH, WILSON, and HOGARTH, now sell at as high prices as the works of “ the great masters of the renowned ages.” This rise in their value does honour to the purchasers, and is a proof that the public taste, in the domestic style, is much improved. But it is no proof at all, that a taste for the public or historical style, exists in this country. An argument from the high prices for the works of the illustrious dead, is too frequently offered under circumstances which prove an indifference to the meritorions works of the living. The very mention of such an evidence, suggests a recollection of the fact, that high prices were paid for the real or reputed works of the great old masters, in London, at the very time when a number of the finest productions by Gainsborough, Wilson, and Hogarth, were painted, without patronage, under every discouragement; and that, when painted, they lay unsold