« PreviousContinue »
charge. Romney was a person of morbid sensitiveness. A hostile criticism would throw him into a fit of despondency and paralyse his powers. When Meyer, the miniature painter, urged him to allow his name to be enrolled among the forty, his friend Hayley, the poet, successfully dissuaded him, in the belief that his temperament unfitted him for public competition. The more he reflected,' says Hayley, “on the peculiarities of his disposition the more he was convinced that the comfort of his life, and his advancement in art, would be most effectually promoted by his setting limits to his passion for popular applause, and confining the display of his works to his domestic gallery.' To exhibit his pictures at the Academy was a necessary preliminary to his election, and he never chose to take the step. Instead of the members rejecting him, it was he that rejected the members. This alternative is stated, though imperfectly, by Mr. Cunningham himself, while he does not attempt to substantiate his fanciful imputation upon Reynolds. The indictment is general. The benignant President was a man with an evil eye' who excluded deserving candidates from the Academy to gratify his enmities, and not one solitary circumstance is adduced in support of the sweeping invective. Neither was Reynolds omnipotent. I have heard him say,' relates Northcote, that although he was nominally king of the Academy, Sir William Chambers was viceroy over him. Those,' he remarked on another occasion, who are of some importance everywhere else, find themselves nobody when they come to the Academy.' The current belief of the time was that Chambers could command the majority of votes, and the election of some unworthy members was ascribed to his influence.
From Romney we proceed to Gainsborough, who after a prosperous career in Bath settled in London in 1774. Reynolds called upon him, and the call was not returned. In April, 1782, Gainsborough exhibited his celebrated Girl and Pigs, for which he asked sixty guineas. Sir Joshua paid him a hundred.* He was probably touched by this generous appreciation of his merit by a man he had repelled, and he requested the President in the winter of the same year to sit for his portrait. After the first sitting on Nov. 3, Reynolds had a slight paralytic attack, and was sent to Bath. When he came back recovered he informed Gainsborough
The volumes of Allan Cunningham are full of inconsistencies. Of the same Reynolds whom he censures in one place for not opening his heart to hamble people, he says in another, 'He was commonly humane and tolerant; he could, indeed, afford, both in fame and purse, to commend and aid the timid and the needy,' and the biographer illustrates his position by this instance of the purchase of Gainsborough's picture, who was neither needy nor timid.
of his return, and Gainsborough only replied that he was glad to hear he was well. The friendly feeling of Gainsborough had subsided, and all communication ceased till his last illness in July, 1788. In the interval, says Allan Cunningham, the President, according to his nature,' spoke of him with courteous, cautious insinuation, but after he was fairly in his grave he spoke with truth and justice. Even this was a degree of virtue which Allan Cunningham did not emulate. The fourteenth • Discourse,' to which he alludes, convicts him of a violation of
truth and justice towards Reynolds in the assertion that he had been addicted to an artful disparagement of Gainsborough. "A few days before he died,' says the President, he wrote me a letter to express his acknowledgments for the good opinion I entertained of his abilities, and the manner in which he had been informed I always spoke of him, and desired he might see me once before he died.' These words were delivered before the assembled artists of England, and Reynolds could not have ventured to quote them if they had been in open contradiction to his actual conduct. Nor with the many fawning tale-bearers that gather round eminent persons was it possible for Gainsborough to have heard only of complimentary speeches, if the usual staple of Sir Joshua's talk had been a thinly veiled malice. The dying painter was a man of violent passions, which were never under control. He had been governed by his wayward temperament, and was capricious and hasty, but when his impulsive nature was quenched by sickness, his better judgment told him that he had been unjust to Reynolds, and he turned towards me,' says the President, “as one who deserved his good opinion by being sensible of his excellence.'*
The behaviour of Sir Joshua to Wilson is a pretext with Allan Cunningham for fresh animadversions. He says that Reynolds acted towards Wilson with cautious malignity,' that he distressed him with injurious opinions,' that he lowered his talents both in social conversation, and, ex cathedra, in the “Discourses,”' and that he attempted, when Wilson was dead, to interrupt the quiet progress of his works to fame.' These accusations against Reynolds are without a shadow of excuse. It is mentioned in Carey's Thoughts,' which appeared at Manchester in 1808, that when the President proposed to the Academicians to drink the health of Gainsborough as “our best landscape painter," Wilson in his turn retorted the health of Gainsborough as “our best portrait painter.”! The incident was quoted by Wright in his . Life of Wilson,' but a few pages further on he prints some reminiscences by Mr. Field, who had 'a most extensive acquaintance with the artists of the day,' and there we are told that the remark of Reynolds, and the rejoinder of Wilson, occurred in common conversation at the Turk's Head Club. . Northcote relates the occasion. Reynolds had just been looking at a fine landscape by Gainsborough. Full of its extraordinary merits he descanted on them to the company, and exclaimed that “Gainsborough was certainly the first landscapepainter in Europe.' He had not noticed that Wilson was among the listeners, and when the latter retorted, Reynolds apologised for his inadvertence. Allan Cunningham suppresses the testimony of Northcote and Field, and adopting the form of the story which favoured the interpretation that the honest tribute to Gainsborough was an oblique reflection upon Wilson, he says that Reynolds pretended not to have been aware of his presence.' The President, in a word, was guilty of malice, cowardice, and falsehood. The apocryphal version adopted by Mr. Cunningham will not bear investigation. The internal evidence is against it, for it is not the custom to give the healths of individual painters at the Academy dinners.* The external evidence is against it, for the authority of Northcote and Field is incomparably higher than that of an obscure resident in a provincial town. The character of Reynolds is against it, for Northcote says that he was always careful not to make any man his enemy,' and the compiler of the Testimonies to his Genius' states that the common accusation of his opponents was that he either concealed his opinions on the works of living artists, or communicated only such as were agreeable.' † The defamatory turn which Allan
* Reynolds said that Gainsborough could copy Vandyke so exquisitely that at a certain distance he could not distinguish the difference. Sir Joshua himself copied the head of an old woman from Rembrandt, and the Chevalier Vanloo, who boasted that he could not be imposed upon, pronounced it an unquestionable original. What is singular, Reynolds was deceived by a copy from a portrait of his own. I saw the other day,' he wrote in Dec. 1784 to Mr. Charles Smith, an artist in India, 'a picture of a child with a dog, which, after a pretty close examination, I thought my own painting, but it was a copy it seems that you made many years ago. The case was once reversed, and Reynolds did not recog nise his hand in a full-length portrait of a lady and her son, which he executed shortly after his return from Italy. The work had been sent to Northcote to copy. Sir Joshua saw it at his house, and asked who it was by? They tell me,' said Northcote, it is by yourself.' Why what have you been doing to it?' replied Reynolds, who evidently fancied he saw characteristics which were not in his manner. The picture, nevertheless, was untouched and very fine.'
* Mr. Cunningham was evidently conscious of this objection, for he substitutes 'a social occasion' for an Academy dinner.
† Northcote records an instance. The London world of fashion flocked to see two portraits by Madame Le Brun, at the house of the French Ambassador, and after Reynolds had been to look at them, Northcote held with him this dialogue : 'I said, - Pray what do you think of them Sir Joshua ?” “That they are very fine," he answered. “How fine?" I said. “As fine as those of any painter,"
Cunningham has given to the story is finally discredited by the want of motive. Wilson kept to landscapes, his choicest pictures were not appreciated, and there was no room for jealousy. Gainsborough. was great in portrait, his reputation was high, and his best productions are superior to the lesser works of Sir Joshua. There was nothing to be gained by exalting a formidable and unfriendly rival, for the sake of depressing an unfriendly but neglected painter of landscapes. Northcote mentions the incident to exemplify the readiness of Reynolds to applaud contemporary genius, and it never occurred to him that a deserved eulogium upon one artist would be converted into a disguised attack upon another. The rancour was exclusively on the side of Wilson, who, soured by disappointment, 'could not in general,' says Mr. Field, 'bear to hear Reynolds named with approbation as a painter.' Placability of temper, remarks Farington, 'may be said to have been Sir Joshua's characteristic,' and his behaviour to his detractor was a strong example of the truth of the observation. Reynolds returned the ill-will by procuring Wilson employment, and this act of magnanimity is thus related by Allan Cunningham: 'It is reported that Reynolds relaxed his hostility at last, and becoming generous when it was too late, obtained an order from a nobleman for two landscapes at a proper price.' Wilson received the kindness in a very different spirit. He was grateful, and Mr. Field, who tells the circumstance, says that 'the conduct on each side was wortiny of the hearts of these great artists.'
When Wilson was in his grave, Reynolds, in his · Discourse on Gainsborough,' condemned the practice of introducing mythological personages into landscapes, which were too near common nature to admit supernatural objects.' He said that many great painters had committed the mistake, and that even Claude would have shown more discretion if he had never meddled with such subjects. He considered that Wilson, among others, had fallen into the error, and that his very admirable picture of a storm' was marred by the introduction of a little Apollo in the clouds, who, with bent bow, is supposed to be slaying the sons of Niobe.
was his answer. “ As fine as those of any painter do you say? Do you mean living or dead?” He answered me rather briskly, " Either living or dead." I then, in great surprise, exclaimed, "What! as fine as Vandyke!" He answered tartly, “ Yes, and finer.".' 'I mention the above circumstance,' adds Northcote,
to show his disinclination to oppose the popular opinion, or to say anything against the interest of a contemporary artist, as it was not his intention to mislead me, but only to put a stop to my enquiries.'
* Reynolds says the Apollo is kreeling, which Allan Cunningham flatly denies. The original picture is in the National Gallery, and any one can satisfy himself that Reynolds is right.
Mr. Leslie, an enthusiastic admirer of Wilson, and who thinks that Reynolds did not sufficiently relish his pictures, holds the objection to be well founded.* Mr. Cunningham approves of the Apollo, and says that the criticism proves the insinuating nature of the critic's hostility, and that long and rooted, dislike had made him shut his eyes on excellences to which he could not otherwise have been insensible.' Reynolds, that is, must have been guilty of moral obliquity, because his biographer had formed a different opinion upon the pictorial merits of a mythological incident. The President was at least “insensible’ to similar excellences' in his favourite Claude, and several great masters of bygone times; nor did his hostility' to Wilson keep him from calling the landscape 'a very admirable picture.' The passage is quoted by Allan Cunningham as merely “a specimen' of the usual conduct of Reynolds, who seems,' he says, 'to have been a master in that courtly and malevolent art ascribed by Pope to Addison, of teaching others to sneer without sneering himself, and damning with faint praise. This is in direct opposition to the testimony of Northcote and Farington. The first says that he always candidly bestowed praise on his contemporaries where due,' and the second that . no man could be more free from jealousy.'
There was another artist of note who behaved grossly to Reynolds, and he too at last was touched with compunction. • Reynolds,' said Johnson, "you hate no person living.' Sir Joshua once remarked that he thought it a very bad state of mind to hate any body, but that he feared he did hate Barry.' * The hatred of such a person,' subjoins Northcote, 'is no trifling disgrace. The infamous conduct which alone could rouse his animosity had not been wanting. Barry was patronized by Burke, which was enough to ensure the friendship of Reynolds, who had assisted him with advice. He was a vain and violent man, who mistook high aspirations for genius, and when the public neglected his third-rate historical pictures he accused the President of blasting his prospects by secret influence. The work he put forth in 1775, entitled · An Enquiry into the Obstructions to the Arts in England,' contains some contemptuous strictures, which are plainly levelled at the paintings
* As an awful representation of a storm,' says Mr. Leslie in bis Handbook,' 'the picture is perfect; and the catastrophe would be more affecting, because our sense of its reality would be uninterrupted, were it caused only by the fiash of lightning. As Sir Joshua says, this is the first impression-an impression which is distracted by the appearance of Apollo on a strip of cloud. I am inclined to think the mistake of this introduction originated in the desire of poor Wilson to draw attention to his neglected art, by making it what the taste of the times would consider classic.'