Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners, by William Hazlitt

Essay xiii.

On Certain Inconsistencies in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses

The two chief points which Sir Joshua aims at in his Discourses are to show that excellence in the Fine Arts is the result of pains and study rather than of genius, and that all beauty, grace, and grandeur are to be found, not in actual nature, but in an idea existing in the mind. On both these points he appears to have fallen into considerable inconsistencies or very great latitude of expression, so as to make it difficult to know what conclusion to draw from his various reasonings. I shall attempt little more in this Essay than to bring together several passages that, from their contradictory import, seem to imply some radical defect in Sir Joshua’s theory, and a doubt as to the possibility of placing an implicit reliance on his authority.

To begin with the first of these subjects, the question of original genius. In the Second Discourse, ‘On the Method of Study,’ Sir Joshua observes towards the end:

‘There is one precept, however, in which I shall only be opposed by the vain, the ignorant, and the idle. I am not afraid that I shall repeat it too often. You must have no dependence on your own genius. If you have great talents, industry will improve them: if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well-directed labour; nothing is to be obtained without it. Not to enter into metaphysical discussions on the nature or essence of genius, I will venture to assert that assiduity unabated by difficulty, and a disposition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit, will produce effects similar to those which some call the result of natural powers.’

The only tendency of the maxim here laid down seems to be to lure those students on with the hopes of excellence who have no chance of succeeding, and to deter those who have from relying on the only prop and source of real excellence — the strong bent and impulse of their natural powers. Industry alone can only produce mediocrity; but mediocrity in art is not worth the trouble of industry. Genius, great natural powers, will give industry and ardour in the pursuit of their proper object, but not if you divert them from that object into the trammels of common-place mechanical labour. By this method you neutralise all distinction of character — make a pedant of the blockhead and a drudge of the man of genius. What, for instance, would have been the effect of persuading Hogarth or Rembrandt to place no dependence on their own genius, and to apply themselves to the general study of the different branches of the art and of every sort of excellence, with a confidence of success proportioned to their misguided efforts, but to destroy both those great artists? ‘You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house!’ You undermine the superstructure of art when you strike at its main pillar and support, confidence and faith in nature. We might as well advise a person who had discovered a silver or a lead mine on his estate to close it up, or the common farmer to plough up every acre he rents in the hope of discovering hidden treasure, as advise the man of original genius to neglect his particular vein for the study of rules and the imitation of others, or try to persuade the man of no strong natural powers that he can supply their deficiency by laborious application. Sir Joshua soon after, in the Third Discourse, alluding to the terms, inspiration, genius, gusto, applied by critics and orators to painting, proceeds:

‘Such is the warmth with which both the Ancients and Moderns speak of this divine principle of the art; but, as I have formerly observed, enthusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge. Though a student by such praise may have his attention roused and a desire excited of running in this great career, yet it is possible that what has been said to excite may only serve to deter him. He examines his own mind, and perceives there nothing of that divine inspiration with which, he is told, so many others have been favoured. He never travelled to heaven to gather new ideas; and he finds himself possessed of no other qualifications than what mere common observation and a plain understanding can confer. Thus he becomes gloomy amidst the splendour of figurative declamation, and thinks it hopeless to pursue an object which he supposes out of the reach of human industry.’

Yet presently after he adds:

‘It is not easy to define in what this great style consists; nor to describe by words the proper means of acquiring it, if the mind of the student should be at all capable of such an acquisition. Could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius.’

Here, then, Sir Joshua admits that it is a question whether the student is likely to be at all capable of such an acquisition as the higher excellencies of art, though he had said in the passage just quoted above that it is within the reach of constant assiduity and of a disposition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit to effect all that is usually considered as the result of natural powers. Is the theory which our author means to inculcate a mere delusion, a mere arbitrary assumption? At one moment Sir Joshua attributes the hopelessness of the student to attain perfection to the discouraging influence of certain figurative and overstrained expressions, and in the next doubts his capacity for such an acquisition under any circumstances. Would he have him hope against hope, then? If he ‘examines his own mind and finds nothing there of that divine inspiration with which he is told so many others have been favoured,’ but which he has never felt himself; if ‘he finds himself possessed of no other qualifications’ for the highest efforts of genius and imagination ‘than what mere common observation and a plain understanding can confer,’ he may as well desist at once from ‘ascending the brightest heaven of invention’:— if the very idea of the divinity of art deters instead of animating him, if the enthusiasm with which others speak of it damps the flame in his own breast, he had better not enter into a competition where he wants the first principle of success, the daring to aspire and the hope to excel. He may be assured he is not the man. Sir Joshua himself was not struck at first by the sight of the masterpieces of the great style of art, and he seems unconsciously to have adopted this theory to show that he might still have succeeded in it but for want of due application. His hypothesis goes to this — to make the common run of his readers fancy they can do all that can be done by genius, and to make the mail of genius believe he can only do what is to be done by mechanical rules and systematic industry. This is not a very feasible scheme; nor is Sir Joshua sufficiently clear and explicit in his reasoning in support of it.

In speaking of Carlo Maratti, he confesses the inefficiency of this doctrine in a very remarkable manner:—

‘Carlo Maratti succeeded better than those I have first named, and I think owes his superiority to the extension of his views: besides his master Andrea Sacchi, he imitated Raffaelle, Guido, and the Caraccis. It is true, there is nothing very captivating in Carlo Maratti; but this proceeded from a want which cannot be completely supplied; that is, want of strength of parts. In this certainly men are not equal; and a man can bring home wares only in proportion with the capital with which he goes to market. Carlo, by diligence, made the most of what he had; but there was undoubtedly a heaviness about him, which extended itself uniformly to his invention, expression, his drawing, colouring, and the general effect of his pictures. The truth is, he never equalled any of his patterns in any one thing, and he added little of his own.’

Here, then, Reynolds, we see, fairly gives up the argument. Carlo, after all, was a heavy hand; nor could all his diligence and his making the most of what he had make up for the want of ‘natural powers.’ Sir Joshua’s good sense pointed out to him the truth in the individual instance, though he might be led astray by a vague general theory. Such, however, is the effect of a false principle that there is an evident bias in the artist’s mind to make genius lean upon others for support, instead of trusting to itself and developing its own incommunicable resources. So in treating in the Twelfth Discourse of the way in which great artists are formed, Sir Joshua reverts very nearly to his first position:

‘The daily food and nourishment of the mind of an Artist is found in the great works of his predecessors. There is no other way for him to become great himself. Serpens, nigi serpentem comederit, non fit draco. Raffaelle, as appears from what has been said, had carefully studied the works of Masaccio, and indeed there was no other, if we except Michael Angelo (whom he likewise imitated),38 so worthy of his attention; and though his manner was dry and hard, his compositions formal, and not enough diversified, according to the custom of Painters in that early period, yet his works possess that grandeur and simplicity which accompany, and even sometimes proceed from, regularity and hardness of manner. We must consider the barbarous state of the arts before his time, when skill in drawing was so little understood, that the best of the painters could not even foreshorten the foot, but every figure appeared to stand upon his toes, and what served for drapery had, from the hardness and smallness of the folds, too much the appearance of cords clinging round the body. He first introduced large drapery, flowing in an easy and natural manner; indeed, he appears to be the first who discovered the path that leads to every excellence to which the art afterwards arrived, and may therefore be justly considered as one of the Great Fathers of Modern Art.

‘Though I have been led on to a longer digression respecting this great painter than I intended, yet I cannot avoid mentioning another excellence which he possessed in a very eminent degree: he was as much distinguished among his contemporaries for his diligence and industry as he was for the natural faculties of his mind. We are told that his whole attention was absorbed in the pursuit of his art, and that he acquired the name of Masaccio from his total disregard to his dress, his person, and all the common concerns of life. He is indeed a signal instance of what well-directed diligence will do in a short time: he lived but twenty-seven years, yet in that short space carried the art so far beyond what it had before reached, that he appears to stand alone as a model for his successors. Vasari gives a long catalogue of painters and sculptors who formed their taste and learned their art by studying his works; among those, he names Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Raffaelle, Bartholomeo, Andrea del Sarto, Il Rosso, and Pierino del Vaga.’

Sir Joshua here again halts between two opinions. He tells us the names of the painters who formed themselves upon Masaccio’s style: he does not tell us on whom he formed himself. At one time the natural faculties of his mind were as remarkable as his industry; at another he was only a signal instance of what well-directed diligence will do in a short t that leads to every excellence to which the Art afterwards arrived,’ though he is introduced in an argument to show that ‘the daily food and nourishment of the mind of the Artist must be found in the works of his predecessors.’ There is something surely very wavering and unsatisfactory in all this.

Sir Joshua, in another part of his work, endeavours to reconcile and prop up these contradictions by a paradoxical sophism which I think turns upon himself. He says: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only’ (by which he has just explained himself to mean the study of other masters), ‘variety, and even originality of invention is produced. I will go further: even genius, at least, what is so called, is the child of imitation. But as this appears to be contrary to the general opinion, I must explain my position before I enforce it.

‘Genius is supposed to be a power of producing excellencies which are out of the reach of the rules of art: a power which no precepts can teach, and which no industry can acquire.

‘This opinion of the impossibility of acquiring those beauties which stamp the work with the character of genius, supposes that it is something more fixed than in reality it is, and that we always do and ever did agree in opinion with respect to what should be considered as the characteristic of genius. But the truth is, that the degree of excellence which proclaims Genius is different in different times and different places; and what shows it to be so is, that mankind have often changed their opinion upon this matter.

‘When the Arts were in their infancy, the power of merely drawing the likeness of any object was considered as one of its greatest efforts. The common people, ignorant of the principles of art, talk the same language even to this day. But when it was found that every man could be taught to do this, and a great deal more, merely by the observance of certain precepts, the name of Genius then shifted its application, and was given only to him who added the peculiar character of the object he represented — to him who had invention, expression, grace, or dignity; in short, those qualities or excellencies, the power of producing which could not then be taught by any known and promulgated rules.

‘We are very sure that the beauty of form, the expression of the passions, the art of composition, even the power of giving a general air of grandeur to a work, is at present very much under the dominion of rules. These excellencies were heretofore considered merely as the effects of genius; and justly, if genius is not taken for inspiration, but as the effect of close observation and experience.’

Sir Joshua began with undertaking to show that ‘genius was the child of the imitation of others, and now it turns out not to be inspiration indeed, but the effect of close observation and experience.’ The whole drift of this argument appears to be contrary to what the writer intended, for the obvious inference is that the essence of genius consists entirely, both in kind and degree, in the single circumstance of originality. The very same things are or are not genius, according as they proceed from invention or from mere imitation. In so far as a thing is original, as it has never been done before, it acquires and it deserves the appellation of genius: in so far as it is not original, and is borrowed from others or taught by rule, it is not, neither is it called, genius. This does not make much for the supposition that genius is a traditional and second-hand quality. Because, for example, a man without much genius can copy a picture of Michael Angelo’s, does it follow that there was no genius in the original design, or that the inventor and copyist are equal? If indeed, as Sir Joshua labours to prove, mere imitation of existing models and attention to established rules could produce results exactly similar to those of natural powers, if the progress of art as a learned profession were a gradual but continual accumulation of individual excellence, instead of being a sudden and almost miraculous start to the highest beauty and grandeur nearly at first, and a regular declension to mediocrity ever after, then indeed the distinction between genius and imitation would be little worth contending for; the causes might be different, the effects would be the same, or rather skill to avail ourselves of external advantages would be of more importance and efficacy than the most powerful internal resources. But as the case stands, all the great works of art have been the offspring of individual genius, either projecting itself before the general advances of society or striking out a separate path for itself; all the rest is but labour in vain. For every purpose of emulation or instruction we go back to the original inventors, not to those who imitated, and, as it is falsely pretended, improved upon their models: or if those who followed have at any time attained as high a rank or surpassed their predecessors, it was not from borrowing their excellencies, but by unfolding new and exquisite powers of their own, of which the moving principle lay in the individual mind, and not in the stimulus afforded by previous example and general knowledge. Great faults, it is true, may be avoided, but great excellencies can never be attained in this way. If Sir Joshua’s hypothesis of progressive refinement in art was anything more than a verbal fallacy, why does he go back to Michael Angelo as the God of his idolatry? Why does he find fault with Carlo Maratti for being heavy? Or why does he declare as explicitly as truly, that ‘the judgment, after it has been long passive, by degrees loses its power of becoming active when exertion is necessary’? — Once more to point out the fluctuation in Sir Joshua’s notions on this subject of the advantages of natural genius and artificial study, he says, when recommending the proper objects of ambition to the young artist:

‘My advice in a word is this: keep your principal attention fixed upon the higher excellencies. If you compass them, and compass nothing more, you are still in the first class. We may regret the innumerable beauties which you may want; you may be very imperfect, but still you are an imperfect artist of the highest order.’

This is the Fifth Discourse. In the Seventh our artist seems to waver, and flings a doubt on his former decision, whereby ‘it loses some colour.’

‘Indeed perfection in an inferior style may be reasonably preferred to mediocrity in the highest walks of art. A landscape of Claude Lorraine may39 be preferred to a history by Luca Giordano: but hence appears the necessity of the connoisseur’s knowing in what consists the excellency of each class, in order to judge how near it approaches to perfection.’

As he advances, however, he grows bolder, and altogether discards his theory of judging of the artist by the class to which he belongs —‘But we have the sanction of all mankind,’ he says, ‘in preferring genius in a lower rank of art to feebleness and insipidity in the highest.’ This is in speaking of Gainsborough. The whole passage is excellent, and, I should think, conclusive against the general and factitious style of art on which he insists so much at other times.

‘On this ground, however unsafe, I will venture to prophesy, that two of the last distinguished painters of that country, I mean Pompeio Battoni and Rafaelle Mengs, however great their names may at present sound in our ears,40 will very soon fall into the rank of Imperiale, Sebastian Concha, Placido Constanza, Musaccio, and the rest of their immediate predecessors; whose names, though equally renowned in their lifetime, are now fallen into what is little short of total oblivion. I do not say that those painters were not superior to the artist I allude to,41 and whose loss we lament, in a certain routine of practice, which, to the eyes of common observers, has the air of a learned composition, and bears a sort of superficial resemblance to the manner of the great men who went before them. I know this perfectly well; but I know likewise, that a man looking for real and lasting reputation must unlearn much of the common-place method so observable in the works of the artists whom I have named. For my own part, I confess, I take more interest in and am more captivated with the powerful impression of nature, which Gainsborough exhibited in his portraits and in his landscapes, and the interesting simplicity and elegance of his little ordinary beggar-children, than with any of the works of that school, since the time of Andrea Sacchi, or perhaps we may say Carlo Maratti: two painters who may truly be said to be ULTIMI ROMANORUM.

‘I am well aware how much I lay myself open to the censure and ridicule of the academical professors of other nations in preferring the humble attempts of Gainsborough to the works of those regular graduates in the great historical style. But we have the sanction of all mankind in preferring genius in a lower rank of art to feebleness and insipidity in the highest.’

Yet this excellent artist and critic had said but a few pages before when working upon his theory —‘For this reason I shall beg leave to lay before you a few thoughts on the subject; to throw out some hints that may lead your minds to an opinion (which I take to be the true one) that Painting is not only not to be considered as an imitation operating by deception, but that it is, and ought to be, in many points of view and strictly speaking, no imitation at all of external nature. Perhaps it ought to be as far removed from the vulgar idea of imitation as the refined, civilised state in which we live is removed from a gross state of nature; and those who have not cultivated their imaginations, which the majority of mankind certainly have not, may be said, in regard to arts, to continue in this state of nature. Such men will always prefer imitation’ (the imitation of nature) ‘to that excellence which is addressed to another faculty that they do not possess; but these are not the persons to whom a painter is to look, any more than a judge of morals and manners ought to refer controverted points upon those subjects to the opinions of people taken from the banks of the Ohio or from New Holland.’

In opposition to the sentiment here expressed that ‘Painting is and ought to be, in many points of view and strictly speaking, no imitation at all of external nature,’ it is emphatically said in another place: ‘Nature is and must be the fountain which alone is inexhaustible, and from which all excellences must originally flow.’

I cannot undertake to reconcile so many contradictions, nor do I think it an easy task for the student to derive any simple or intelligible clue from these conflicting authorities and broken hints in the prosecution of his art. Sir Joshua appears to have imbibed from others (Burke or Johnson) a spurious metaphysical notion that art was to be preferred to nature, and learning to genius, with which his own good sense and practical observation were continually at war, but from which he only emancipates himself for a moment to relapse into the same error again shortly after.42 The conclusion of the Twelfth Discourse is, I think, however, a triumphant and unanswerable denunciation of his own favourite paradox on the objects and study of art.

‘Those artists’ (he says with a strain of eloquent truth) ‘who have quitted the service of nature (whose service, when well understood, is perfect freedom) and have put themselves under the direction of I know not what capricious fantastical mistress, who fascinates and overpowers their whole mind, and from whose dominion there are no hopes of their being ever reclaimed (since they appear perfectly satisfied, and not at all conscious of their forlorn situation), like the transformed followers of Comus,

Not once perceive their foul disfigurement;

But boast themselves more comely than before.

‘Methinks such men who have found out so short a path have no reason to complain of the shortness of life and the extent of art; since life is so much longer than is wanted for their improvement, or is indeed necessary for the accomplishment of their idea of perfection.43 On the contrary, he who recurs to nature, at every recurrence renews his strength. The rules of art he is never likely to forget; they are few and simple: but Nature is refined, subtle, and infinitely various, beyond the power and retention of memory; it is necessary therefore to have continual recourse to her. In this intercourse there is no end of his improvement: the longer he lives, the nearer he approaches to the true and perfect idea of Art.’

38 How careful is Sir Joshua, even in a parenthesis, to insinuate the obligations of this great genius to others, as if he would have been nothing without them.

39 If Sir Joshua had an offer to exchange a Luca Giordano in his collection for a Claude Lorraine, he would not have hesitated long about the preference.

40 Written in 1788.

41 Gainsborough.

42 Sir Joshua himself wanted academic skill and patience In the details of his profession. From these defects he seems to have been alternately repelled by each theory and style of art, the simply natural and elaborately scientific, as it came before him; and in his impatience of each, to have been betrayed into a tissue of inconsistencies somewhat difficult to unravel.

43 He had been before speaking of Boucher, Director of the French Academy, who told him that ‘when he was young, studying his art, he found it necessary to use models, but that he had left them off for many years.’

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:19