Page images
PDF
EPUB

faction of the innovators was probably not without foundation, for Reynolds himself, though nominally a director, refused to act, and he had publicly announced that he was no friend to the proceedings of the governing body. It was, however, impossible that all the most eminent artists in the kingdom should consent to be ruled by the nobodies. Every member of note withdrew from the Society, and the seceders set to work to found the Academy. A scheme was drawn up, and Chambers, the architect, West, Cotes and Moser petitioned the King to adopt it. Reynolds stood aloof. He had previously made many abortive efforts to establish an Academy of Arts, and he had come to the conclusion that every attempt would be fruitless without the patronage of the Crown. He evidently believed that the King would uphold the original institution, and he thought it beneath the dignity of his profession to invite a repulse. The King, on the contrary, entered heartily into the proposal, and secretly matured the plan with the promoters. When everything was ready the principal artists were summoned to meet at the house of Wilton, the sculptor, on the evening of December 9. The delegates sent to Reynolds could not persuade him to attend. Kirby, the new president of the Incorporated Society, and who had been the King's teacher of perspective, assured him that George III. would not countenance the rival project, and Reynolds was misled by what he supposed to be an announcement by authority. West was next employed to remove his incredulity. He was at last convinced, and when, in company with West, he arrived late at the meeting there was a general burst of satisfaction. By common consent he was appointed president.

To confer dignity on his office he was knighted, which occasioned much rejoicing among his friends. Burke declared that there was a natural fitness in his name for the title, and Johnson, after ten years' abstinence from wine, drank a glass to his health on the occasion.

George III. had acquiesced in the unanimous choice of the artists, but he himself had no appreciation of the works of Reynolds. “The surface of Sir Joshua's pictures,' says Mr. Davis, “is in itself a visual luxury. The rich impasto is flung about with an apparent carelessness, a riot almost of executive enjoyment, which contrasts singularly with the finely-regulated effects of which it is made the medium.' This daring freedom of colouring, this richness of surface appeared coarse and confused to the King,* who was short-sighted, and had to look

close

* "You please me much,' wrote Gainsborough to an attorney at Ipswich in 1758, ‘by saying that no other fault is found in your picture than the roughness

of

close to the canvas. “Here,' remarked Wilson to Beechey, after leading him to the further corner of the room, is where you should view a painting, with your eyes and not with your nose.' Nor can any one form a competent judgment of art who is not familiar with the manifold appearances of nature, and another result of the short sight of George III. must have been to hide from his observation many natural effects. When he sat for his portrait to Beechey, he objected to the red tint on some of the trees of Sir Joshua. Beechey made no reply, but laid next day upon the table a branch that had been turned red by the frost. Ah, yes,' said the King, when he caught sight of it, “Sir Joshua's red tree; very well-very well.' Political feeling may have had its influence. The heart of George III. was in affairs of state, and he was not unlikely to be prejudiced against the pictures of a man who knew no distinction in his associates between King's men and liberals. Mr. Taylor has gone further, and fancies he has discovered that Reynolds belonged to the Opposition. There is not an atom of evidence to support the conclusion. He lived in intimacy with the members of every party—with Wilkes the demagogue, Burke the Whig, and Johnson the Tory. There is no record that he ever performed a political act, or expressed a political opinion, unless his abhorrence of the French Revolution is to be considered an exception. None of his contemporaries or biographers have dropped a hint that he had a bias to one side or the other, and there is the decisive testimony of Northcote, which Mr. Taylor has overlooked, that politics never amused him, nor ever employed his thoughts for a moment.'

Reynolds delivered a discourse at the opening of the Academy on January 2, 1769. This was followed by a second on December 11, when he distributed the prizes. The plan of the Academy comprised a school for training artists, and a gold medal was annually to be conferred upon the student who produced the best attempt at an historical picture. The President felt that formal compliments would become flat by repetition, and he determined to seize the opportunity to put beginners in possession of the lessons he had learned by years of observation, reflection, and practice. Talent was of slower growth than had been anticipated, and after 1772 the gold medal was reserved for alternate years, when the discourses of the President became biennial also. From the long intervals between them he could

of the surface, that part being of use in giving force to the effect at a proper distance, and what a judge of painting knows an original from a copy by,in short

, being the touch of the pencil, which is harder to preserve than smoothness.' When some one complained to Rembrandt that he laid his colours on coarsely, he answered that he was a painter and not a dyer.' Vol. 120.-No. 239. K

not

not enter upon a systematic course of instruction ; but more methodical lecturers have not had equal success in placing the student upon the vantage ground occupied by the master. He expatiated upon the qualities which go to form a fine picturehe described the various schools of painting, with the merits and defects of each-he specified the characteristics of the several masters, showing what was to be imitated and what to be avoided -and he detailed to learners the modes of proceeding which would best enable them to appropriate the beauties of their fore

His style was clear and chaste, and had the elements of an elegance which proved that if he had not been a celebrated painter he had it in his power to become a celebrated author. The excellence of the composition gave rise to a report that the Discourses were the work of Johnson or Burke. Malone and Northcote have refuted a charge which must appear ridiculous to any one who has the least acquaintance with the style of the pretended authors. No refutation was required. An accusation which is unsupported by a tittle of trustworthy evidence is simply slander.

Most of the criticism which has been directed against the Discourses themselves appears to us to be unimportant or unsound. It was, I apprehend,' says Allan Cunningham, the province of the President to point out those natural qualities by which genius for art might be distinguished from forwardness and presumption. He ought to have admonished, nay commanded, the dull and unintellectual to retire from a pursuit for which they were unfit.' Etty sent pictures for years to the Royal Academy and the British Gallery, and year after year they were all returned as below the standard of admission. His companions confirmed the decision of the hangers. They looked on him, says Mr. Leslie, as a worthy plodding person, but with no chance of ever becoming a good painter. At last some of his pictures were accepted, and Mr. Leslie states that they were black and colourless attempts at ideal subjects.' This was the man who eventually became the finest painter of flesh that the English school has produced, and who, if the President for the time being had laid claim to a prescience denied to mortals, would certainly have been admonished, nay commanded, to retire from a pursuit for which he was unfit.'

Allan Cunningham has a second objection to the Discourses. He quotes the advice of Reynolds to young artists to study the great masters,' and adds the comment, Such was his theory: we all know what was his practice. He could not be unaware, while he was lecturing the annual academical crop of beardless youths upon the necessity of studying in the character and labouring in

the

[graphic]

the style of the princes of the Italian school, that he was sending them forth to seek bread and fame in a pursuit where neither were to be found.' The imputation is founded upon a total misconception of the teaching of Reynolds. The critic confounds the recommendation to study the great masters with the recommendation to become a painter of the same class of pictures. The doctrine of Reynolds was that those who knew their profession from principles could apply them alike to any branch of the art, and succeed in it;' and he merely enjoined upon his auditors to acquire their principles from the productions which exemplified them in the rarest perfection. Then he said, if the painter, from particular inclination, or from the taste of the time and place he lives in, or from necessity, or from failure in the highest attempts, is obliged to descend lower, he will bring into the lower sphere of art a grandeur of composition and character that will raise and ennoble his works far above their natural rank. "Such was his theory,' and his practice' was in accordance with it, for his principal school had been the Vatican.

He is further charged by Allan Cunningham with keeping silence concerning the mystery of portraiture in which he himself excelled.' There was no mystery in the case. He gave,' says Mr. Leslie, "all the instruction he could convey by words in his own branch of the art, as well as in that which he considered higher.' Pictures and nature were bis instructors, and his Discourses are devoted to showing learners the way to profit by these models. Any other receipt for painting great portraits is no more possible than a receipt for composing great poems. "Slothful students,' said Reynolds, are always talking of the prodigious progress they should make if they could but have the advantage of being taught by some particular eminent master. Such are to be told, that after the rudiments are past very little of our art can be taught by others. The most skilful master can do little more than put into the hands of his scholar the end of the clue by which he must conduct himself.' This is a truth which is not confined to painting. The whole science of education, it has been admirably said, consists in teaching others to teach themselves.

The insinuation that Reynolds kept back his discoveries to guard against rivalry becomes an open accusation when Allan Cunningham speaks of the great painter's habit of hiding the ingredients of his colours from his pupils. “He considered his knowledge as a part of his fortune, and concealed it as a spell which to reveal would undo him. What was the use of all this secresy? Those who stole the mystery of his colours could not use it unless they stole his skill and talent also. This was as obvious to Reynolds as to Allan Cunningham, and might K2

have

have suggested that the discreditable motive imputed to him could not be correct.* The true cause of his precautions is plain. His innovations had been injurious to many of his pictures. He was never sure that any of his peculiar practices were sound, and though in his passion for progress he could not resist the temptation to try experiments, he would not disclose an uncertain process, which would have been adopted at once by the rising generation of painters to the general detriment of art. The result has proved the wisdom of his misgivings. The simple methods he recommended to his pupils are now admitted to have been the safest, and therefore the best. He freely afforded every assistance to students which he believed could be beneficial to them. He would lend any of them pictures, prints, and drawings, and these were sometimes jeopardised by being seized for the debts of the borrowers. The young artists had always

permission to consult him on their works, and his advice,' says Farington, was given frankly and kindly, with great sincerity, but with as much encouragement as truth would allow.' The vexatious interruptions to which he was exposed seldom provoked him to impatience. Once he said tartly to a novice, who produced a wretched portrait of a woman, "What is this you have in your hand ? You should not show such things ? What's that upon her head ?-a dishclout?' The youth lost hope, and was unable to resume his pencil for more than a month ; but such sallies were very rare, and Northcote says they would never have been uttered if Reynolds had been aware of their effect.

The animadversions of Allan Cunningham on the conduct of Reynolds towards the students are mild in comparison with the strictures on his behaviour towards established painters. Romney did not become an R.A. “Reynolds, it would seem,' says Allan Cunningham, "disliked both the man and his works, and such was the omnipotence of the President, that on whomsoever his evil eye lighted, that person had small chance of the honours of the Academy. The facts are a triumphant refutation of the

* "The well-grounded painter,' says Reynolds in his Second Discourse, * makes no pretensions to secrets, except those of closer application. Without conceiving the smallest jealousy against others he is contented that all shall be as great as himself who have undergone the same fatigue, and as his pre-eminence depends not upon a trick, he is free from the painful suspicions of a juggler who lives in perpetual fear lest his trick should be discovered

† Northcote, who abounded in cynical wit, and delighted in the exercise of it, could not have urged the same plea for himself. “These,' said an embryo artist, who came up to London from Devonshire with some drawings, were thought very well of, sir, at Plymouth.' "Were they?' replied Northcote, then I advise you to carry them back again ; they will be thought nothing of here. The rough criticisms of Reynolds were the occasional outbreaks of irritation, but the caustic sarcasms of Northcote were the deliberate habit of his mind.

charge

« PreviousContinue »