« PreviousContinue »
unduly, and that to learn the truth it was necessary to be deaf to partial courtiers and listen to the ruder voice of the outer world. The allegation of Allan Cunningham, that Reynolds himself indulged in adulation, and soothed his sitters by professional flattery,' is contradicted by Northcote. • This,' he said to Hazlitt, 'is far from the truth. He flattered nobody, and instead of gossiping or making it his study to amuse his sitters, minded his own business.' When they forgot what was due to him he asserted his independence, and always,' says Smith in his Life of Nollekens,' withstood their fantastic head-tossings.'
Johnson upon some sudden emergency requested Reynolds to furnish him with an Idler.' The essay appeared on Sept. 29, 1759, and was devoted to ridiculing the false connoisseurship which prevailed. The pretenders to taste had picked up a few rules, which were either altogether erroneous or only of partial application, and by these they judged every picture they saw. They did not allow themselves to consider whether a work was grand or beautiful, whether it touched the feelings or fired the imagination. Their solitary test was the exemplification or neglect of the narrow principles they had got by rote. The portraits of Reynolds must often have been carped at by these callous and conceited pedants, and he could not have been sorry for an opportunity to expose their incapacity and destroy their authority. At the interval of three weeks he contributed another essay to the * Idler,' and took for his subject the imitation of nature. Farington relates that the pictures which then 'produced astonishment and delight were the loaf and cheese that could provoke hunger, the cat and canary bird, and the dead mackerel on a deal board.' Reynolds had to caution the practitioners of a trumpery art, which was not much above the level of that of the wood-grainer, against being too much elated by their easy accomplishment, and the 'connoisseurs' against concluding that a man was 'a Raphael or Michael Angelo because he painted a cat or a fiddle so finely that it looked as if you could take it up. A sentence or two was all he bestowed upon these triflers, and the main purpose of his paper was to explain in what sense nature was to be imitated in the representation of the human form. The Dutch were local in their style, and copied the ungainly persons of their countrymen, which Reynolds terms "nature modified by accident.' The chiefs of the Roman school rejected the minute peculiarities which rendered the figures of Rembrandt and Teniers typical of a province, and adopted 'the invariable ideas which are inherent in universal nature.' *For want of beautiful women,' said Raphael, 'I use a certain Vol. 120.-No. 239.
ideal which I frame in my mind;' and Reynolds insisted upon the superiority of the elevated conceptions of the mind over the exact delineation of a particular model. He did not deny that uncorrected nature was appropriate to scenes from low life, but he thought it absurd that historic and sacred pictures should be filled with portraits of Dutchmen. The question remained, why a figure for which no living counterpart could be found should be a truer embodiment of general nature than a figure which was borrowed from nature itself; and this question he answered at the end of another three weeks in his essay on beauty. He laid down the proposition that there is a central form, 'which nature most frequently produces, and always seems to intend in her productions.' "To instance,' he says, 'in a particular part of a feature, the line that forms the ridge of the nose is beautiful when it is straight; this, then, is the central form, which is oftener found than either concave, convex, or any other irregular form that shall be proposed.' General nature, therefore, or beauty, consisted in the medium between excess and deficiency. The ideal painter avoided the national and individual peculiarities in which either extreme predominated, and followed the middle path to which nature constantly inclined. Thus the line of Vandyke,' according to Fuseli,
was balanced between Flemish corpulence and English slenderness. In his subsequent writings Reynolds impressed this doctrine upon the students that they might have a leading principle to guide them in their practice. They were to search for the common form of each class,-of infancy, of age, of strength, of activity, of delicacy,—and besides the types of the various divisions of mankind there was a still more general type in which strength, activity, and delicacy should each be blended in due proportion.
The system that beauty was to be sought in a central form is mixed up by Reynolds with his opinion on the cause of our preference. This he believes to depend upon habit. Shapes are pleasing when they are usual, when the eye and mind have been trained to them from their prevalence in our section of the world. As we are more accustomed,' he says, 'to beauty than deformity, we may conclude that to be the reason why we approve and admire it, as we approve and admire customs and fashions for no other reason than that we are used to them. He enforces his view by the argument that all the races of mankind imbibe their ideas of beauty from themselves. •I suppose,' he urges, ' nobody will doubt if an Ethiopian painter were to paint the Goddess of Beauty, but that he would represent her black, with
thick lips, flat nose, and woolly hair. We, indeed, say, that the form and colour of the European is preferable to that of the Ethiopian; but I know of no other reason we have for it but that we are more accustomed to it.' Reynolds pressed the theory too far, but it has a large element of truth, and is part of the benevolent dispensation of Providence, or whole nations would be afflicted by a perpetual spectacle of ugliness. The principle explains why Rembrandt was mean and clumsy in his forms, and why Rubens delighted in brawny men and fat women. Neither artist was devoid of sentiment and imagination. With Rubens these attributes come out strongly in his landscape backgrounds, in his luxury of colour, in his fine taste for general effect in composition, and in the action and expression of particular figures. With Rembrandt the qualities which appeal to the mind are often in extraordinary force. Many of his scenes are highly impressive, his faces are full of thought, and his light and shadow have a wonderful poetic power. But the eyes of both had dwelt from childhood upon native forms, they had become reconciled, or more than reconciled to their imperfections, and their own fancy was pleased with shapes which seem gross and vulgar to the majority of cultivated men. There is always a danger that the painter may mistake his local predilections for abstract beauty, and hence the importance of his becoming early imbued with a taste for antique models, and the greatest masters of design. To look no further would lead to a diluted imitation. Nature must complete what art begins.
The third 'Idler' of Reynolds appeared on Nov. 10, 1759. In the beginning of that year Adam Smith published his * Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he gives an account of the system of beauty put forth by Father Buffier. He has determined,' says Smith, “that the beauty of every object consists in that form and colour which is most usual among things of that particular sort to which it belongs. A beautiful nose, for example, is one that is neither very long nor very short. neither very straight nor very crooked, but a sort of middle among all those extremes, and less different from any one of them than all of them are from one another. It is the form which nature seems to have aimed at in them all, which, however, she deviates from in a great variety of ways, and very seldom hits exactly.' To demonstrate the influence of habit upon our notions of beauty, Adam Smith referred to the different ideas formed in different nations concerning the beauty of the human shape and countenance.' A fair complexion,' he says, ‘is a shocking deformity upon the coast of Guinea. Thick
lips and a flat nose are a beauty.'' The theory and illustrations are nearly identical with the essential portions of the essay in the 'Idler.' The argument drawn by Reynolds from fashions and customs is equally taken from Smith, and it is singular that the painter should have omitted to mention the source from which he derived his conclusions. His views have been partially misunderstood by some later metaphysicians. The assertion that our conceptions of beauty were determined by custom alone was confined by Reynolds, though not by Father Buffier, to human and animal form. Dugald Stewart, who had a high estimation of the philosophical speculations of Sir Joshua, overlooked the limitation, and criticised his theory upon the supposition that it extended to colour, which he expressly excluded, except in the case of our preference for a white skin over a black. He renounced the pretension to resolve every species of beauty into a single property, and all such ambitious attempts have hitherto failed. None of the systems which have been propounded are more obviously insufficient than the once popular doctrine of the association of ideas, or we should esteem the most loveable persons the most beautiful. Descartes admired people who squinted, and he ascribed the whimsicality of the taste to his boyish affection for a squinting girl. If association alone were the cause of our ideas of beauty there would be nothing peculiar in the case, and what we now call ugliness would just as often be thought beautiful as beauty itself.
Reynolds changed his quarters in 1760, having purchased a forty-seven years' lease of a house in Leicester-square for 16501. He expended 15001, more in building a picture-gallery for the exhibition of his works,' and painting-rooms for himself, his pupils, and his assistants. The outlay absorbed the greater part of his savings. His enlarged establishment included a chariot with carving and gilding on the wheels, and allegorical figures of the Seasons on the panels. His sister objected that it was too showy, and her brother replied, “What! would you have one like an apothecary's carriage?' He had little occasion for a carriage himself, and much to the annoyance of Miss Reynolds, who was exceedingly shy and shrunk from the notice which the
Adam Smith gives additional examples. 'In China if a lady's foot is so large as to be fit to walk upon, she is regarded as a monster of ugliness. Some of the savage nations in North America tie four boards round the heads of their children, and squeeze them into a form that is almost perfectly square. Europeans are astonished at the absurd barbarity of this practice. But they do not reflect that the ladies in Europe had, till within these very few years, been endeavouring for near a century
past to squeeze the beautiful roundness of their natural shape into a square form of the same kind.' The square waists may be seen in numberless pictures and prints.
equipage attracted, he insisted that she should use it. This,' says Northcote, in his Autobiography, serves to show that Sir Joshua knew the use of quackery in the world. He knew that it would be inquired whose grand chariot this was, and that, when it was told, it would give a strong indication of his great success, and by that means tend to increase it.' The comment is in the satirical vein of Northcote; but the motive, which is conjectural, was not in the character of Reynolds. His habits were remote from vulgar ostentation, which could not have co-existed with his pure taste; and his sense would have taught him that outrageous finery would be more likely to excite the ridicule than to attract the custom of the class of persons who sat to him for their portraits. Nor had he any cause to employ artifice to win their favour. His commissions were already too numerous for his rapid hand to execute, and conscious that he was without a rival, he trusted, we may be confident, to the glories of his pencil, and not to the splendour of his carriage, to sustain his reputation. Northcote suppressed the circumstance which explains the seeming contradiction. The adornments were the usage of the day. They are noticed by Gay in his “Trivia, which appeared in 1716:
"Now gaudy pride corrupts the lavish age,
With Loves and Graces on his chariot's sides.' The fashion of decorating carriages with flowers and figures subsequently declined, but it was soon revived; and when Reynolds set up his chariot, some of the best artists were coach-painters by trade. Two of the number, Baker and Catton, were thought worthy to be included among the original academicians. Many other academicians of eminence are said by Mr. Beechey to have begun their career in this department.' "The coachpainter,' he adds, 'required, in a great degree, the same professional education as the painter of history. Poetic subjects were frequently required, and they were executed with a taste of colour and design, and a freedom and delicacy of pencil, which were rarely displayed in the works of those who devoted themselves exclusively to the higher branches of the profession. When it was the custom to cover coach-panels with beautiful pictures, the ornate carriage of Reynolds was only a fitting patronage of his art. His object was to countenance his brethren, and encourage their employment. The Seasons which embellished his equipage were by Catton, who doubtless exerted all his powers, and produced such an excellent specimen of his craft that the