« PreviousContinue »
ordinary, as he was a fashionable painter in his day. “Brother,' said Miss Reynolds, turning to Sir Joshua, “how happens it that we never meet with any pictures by Jervas ? ' · Because,' he replied, “they are all up in the garret.' There the commonplace portraits of past generations are conveyed to make room for their successors; and, except from the celebrity of the subject, the likeness will not long continue to interest unless it is associated with art of a different order from that of Jervas and Cotes. In respect to mere likeness, the deviation of the great masters from slavish fidelity is mostly—as in the instance of the portrait of Goldsmith—but the subordination of a lower species of likeness to a higher. The ideal face,' says Southey, ‘of any one to whom we are tenderly attached—the face which is enshrined in our heart of hearts, and which comes to us in dreams long after it has mouldered in the grave—that face is not the exact mechanical countenance of the beloved person, but its abstract, its idealisation, or rather its realisation; the spirit of the countenance, its essence, and its life.' The face which survives in the memory, which is the epitome of the man, which is the embodiment of soul and disposition, is the face which a genius strives to depict upon his canvas, and it would be a debasement to accommodate it to the defective perceptions which can only appreciate gross and material lineaments.
Many artists who have distanced their rivals at starting have been spoilt by success. They have been content with the acquisitions which had secured them reputation, they have gone on repeating their old stock of ideas, they have grown slovenly in their execution, and have deteriorated when they no longer strove to improve. The lofty aims of Reynolds preserved him from the danger. He was looking out,' said Northcote to Hazlitt, “to see what the world thought of him, or thinking what figure he should make by the side of Correggio or Vandyke, not pluming himself on being a better painter than some one in the next street, or surprised that the people at his own table should speak in praise of his pictures.' His steady efforts to rise upwards maintained his popularity to the end. The public never tired of him in his long career, for he kept their admiration alive by fresh excellences; and if the tide of fashion set in favour of some new idol it turned again before long, and Reynolds retained the first place in estimation as in merit.
A memorable event in the life of Reynolds occurred during his residence in Great Newport Street. The Miss Cotterells, who lived opposite to him, were acquainted with Johnson. Reynolds met him at their house in 1753 or 1754, and a lasting friendship ensued. The intimacy imparted a new impulse to
the active intellect of the painter. Whatever merit,' he wrote towards the close of his career, 'my Discourses have, must be imputed, in a great measure, to the education which I may be said to have had under Dr. Johnson. I do not mean to say, though it certainly would be to their credit if I could say it with truth, that he contributed even a single sentiment to them, but he qualified my mind to think justly. No man had, like him, the faculty of teaching inferior minds the art of thinking. The observations which he made on poetry, on life, and on everything about us, I applied to our art. Nothing,' said Burke, 'showed more the greatness of Sir Joshua's parts than his taking advantage of the writings and conversation of Johnson, and making some application of them to his profession, when Johnson neither understood, nor desired to understand, anything of painting.' * The comparison was unjust. Johnson was blind in one eye, and could only see with the other by applying it close to an object and gradually moving his head over the surface. He had to look at a picture in successive fragments, and could never, he said, discover the least resemblance to the subject it was designed to represent. The defect was not mental but physical. Nature had denied him the full measure of vision, and it was impossible he should form the crudest notion of qualities which appealed exclusively to another order of sight than that which he possessed. The censure might more properly have been directed against Goldsmith, who used to confess to Reynolds, with a laugh, that he had no comprehension of painting. A passage in the Citizen of the World' is a proof that his humility had not enticed him into exaggerating his incapacity. “I know no other motive,' he says, 'but vanity that induces the great to testify such an inordinate passion for pictures
. After the piece is bought, and gazed at eight or ten days, the purchaser's pleasure must surely be over: all the satisfaction he can then have is to show it to others. Upon the same principle every beauty in the architecture of a city, or the decoration of a house, must equally pall in eight or ten days, and what passes for good taste ought properly to be branded for vanity and extravagance. Goldsmith's intercourse with Reynolds, who loved him for his virtues and never made sport of his foibles, did not quicken his perceptions, and he tells the great painter, in the Dedication to the Deserted Village,' 'I am ignorant of the art in which you are said to excel.'+
The knowledge of Burke himself was chiefly confined to abstract theory. 'I know nothing,' he said, of the arts but what I may possibly have endeavoured to know concerning the philosophy of them.'
† The genial sympathy which existed between them is described in a kindred spirit in Mr. Forster's Life of Goldsmith, and it would be superfluous to repeat the particulars detailed in this popular work.
Johnson was the first of many celebrities who became the intimates of Reynolds. Gainsborough says of himself, in one of his letters, that he was 'well read in the volume of nature, which was learning sufficient for him.' The jealous devotion with which Reynolds followed his art was completely free from this taint of professional narrowness. His relish was not confined to the pointed precepts of Johnson, which derived a zest from their piquancy. He had an eager interest in general knowledge, and loved to dip into books in his leisure hours. What such desultory reading,' he said in his · Discourses,' 'cannot afford may be supplied by the conversation of learned men, which is the best of all substitutes for those who have not the means of deep study.' Conversation in the circle in which he moved was a commerce of minds. He maintained his place in the rare assemblage of talent, and Burke, writing of him in 1792 to Mrs. Bunbury, called him the ornament of his country, and delight of society. He not only founded the English school of art, but by his intellectual refinement he commenced the personal reformation of the artists. Reynolds,' wrote Burke to Barry in August, 1767, still keeps that superiority over the rest which he always had from his genius, sense, and morals.' The phrase bears witness to the contempt entertained by the artist world of that period for the decencies of life. Hogarth was gross and illiterate, and if he did not follow their example he at least revelled in the company of the drunken and profligate. He lived chiefly with mechanics, or with persons who were only one degree above them, and, rude as were the lower orders in those days, he was continually in disgrace with his boon companions for misbehaviour. Hayman, more famous for his debauchery than his paintings, corrupted the youthful mind of Gainsborough, and the pupil never got rid of the contagion. His wife and daughters were little check to his dissolute habits, and he only frequented the society in which he could indulge his lax talk, and unrestrained freedoms. Wilson joined to offensive manners a fondness for coarse conviviality, and his nose, bloated with beer-drinking, was the jest of the boys in the street. When the heads of the profession were low and licentious in their tastes the subordinates were sure to tread in the footsteps of their leaders. Reynolds rose superior to the influences which surrounded him. "Such,' says Farington, was the undeviating propriety of his deportment, that wherever he appeared he invariably gave a tone of decorum to the society.' He equally gave a tone to the rising generation, which changed the position of English painters. An artist, who was contemporary with him, contrasting, in the early part of the next century, his past experience with his present, said at a meeting of his brethren, 'I now see only gentlemen before me.'
In 1758 Reynolds raised his prices to twenty, forty, and eighty guineas for a head, half-length, and whole length. From the unusual number of the works he threw off, Northcote says that his profession was more lucrative at this period than when his charges became higher. The celerity with which he turned out a picture was extraordinary. Mr. Taylor finds from his pocket-books that in 1758 he had 159 sitters, which is at the rate of rather more than a portrait to every two days. His facility was not even then at its height. "He took,' said Fuseli, .infinite pains at first to finish his work, but afterwards when he had acquired a greater readiness of hand he dashed on with his brush. The freedom and boldness of his execution increased for many years to come. Here and there we are informed of the time he bestowed upon particular productions. In 1762 he painted in a week the celebrated picture of Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, and in 1773 he completed the head of Beattie and sketched the rest of the figure, in a single sitting of five hours. He did not consider it a disadvantage to be hurried, but held that the concentration of effort made amends for more leisurely workmanship. The rapid succession with which his portraits followed each other renders more surprising the variety of his designs, which would be supposed to have demanded deliberate thought. In the formal parts he could call in the help of assistants. He had several drapery men in his employ,* and such was the advantage of their mechanic aid, that Northcote had heard him observe that no one ever acquired a fortune by his own hands alone. The whole of his productions did not turn to gold. Some of them were never paid for, and some were rejected. In passing through his gallery with Northcote, he pointed to a family group which had been declined, and said, 'Pity so much good work should be thrown away. A few of his pictures may have been refused from a real want of likeness. They may have been among those exceptions to his general success which led Hoppner to express his surprise that Reynolds could venture to send home portraits which had so little resemblance to the originals. The excellence of the work was more often the cause of its condemnation. Art and likeness were too exquisite and refined
The best known was Peter Toms, who became an R.A., and who had the reputation, Northcote says, of being the most skilful of those who made draperypainting a trade. His style was heavy and formal, which Reynolds corrected with his free and flowing brush. Toms once painted a state dress where the expression required some simple attire. Sir Joshua remonstrated, and said that the drapery did not accord with the head. That,' replied Toms, is because your heads are painted on a diminished scale,' by which he meant that they were smaller than life. Reynolds misanderstood him, and exclaimed, in great alarm, “What do you say that I paint in a little manner? Did you say mine is a little manner?'
to be comprehended by persons who could recognise nothing deeper than a staring facsimile. A friend observed to Reynolds that from the number of his pictures for which he received no payment, his paintings probably did not bring him above ten guineas each, and Reynolds replied, with a smile, that he thought 'ten guineas each was a very reasonable profit.' The allowance for losses was extravagant. The works which ultimately remained with him were comparatively few, and his earnings, after all deductions, were large. In 1762 he was making, as Johnson wrote word to Baretti, six thousand a year, and once, when lamenting the interruptions from idle visitors, he dropped the remark, Those people do not consider that my time is worth five guineas an hour.'
The influx of riches did not relax his exertions, for his art was his passion. Till he laid aside his pencil for ever he was constant to his painting-room from ten to four, and he himself says that he went on labouring as hard as a mechanic working for his bread.' He was sometimes enticed into paying a visit to a country seat, and he always returned from the relaxation and luxuries with the feeling that he had been kept from his natural food.' His speedy attainment to wealth and fame had no effect in corrupting his unassuming simplicity. “There goes a man,' said Johnson, not to be spoiled by prosperity; and Burke records that “his native humility, modesty, and candour, never forsook him.' Northcote re-echoes the testimony, and tells us further that Reynolds appeared to underrate both his talents and his paintings. He was led by his diffidence to assent to the foolish talk of the day, and because he was transcendent in portraits he admitted that they belonged to a secondary style of art, however elevated the sentiment and consummate the execution. Allan Cunningham states that he could endure to be flattered;' but his associates declared that flattery was thrown away upon him. * To the compliments which he received,' says Farington, he listened and bowed, but it was rather as one submitting to the remarks than with the complacency of self-satisfaction.' "Sir Joshua,' said Northcote to Hazlitt, always despised malicious reports. He knew they would blow over. He as little regarded exaggerated praise. Nothing you could say had any effect if he was not satisfied with himself.' The reflection was frequently in his mouth, that every man was surrounded by a little circle of admirers, who, from interest or friendship, praised him
* Allan Cunningham sneers at this remark from a disciple of the grand bistorical school of Raphael and Angelo,' as if it was a merit in a painter to sacrifice his gains to idle visitors. A man does not the less love his art for itself because he objects to be robbed of his professional earnings by inconsiderate loungers.