صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

tire repose on nature, not only leaves their productions hard, violent, and crude, but frequently renders them impatient, wavering, and dissatisfied with their own walk of art, and never easy till they get into a different or higher one, where they think they can earn more money or fame with less trouble. By beginning over again, by having the same preliminary ground to go over, with new subjects or bungling experiments, they seldom arrive at that nice, nervous point that trembles on pera fection. This last stage, in which art is as it were identified with nature, an English painter shrinks from with strange repugnance and peculiar abhorrence. The French style is the reverse of ours: it is all dry finishing without effect. We see their faults, and, as we conceive, their general incapacity for art: but we cannot be persuaded to see our own.

The want of encouragement, which is sometimes set up as an all-sufficient plea, will hardly account for this slow and irregue lar progress of English art. There was no premium offered for the production of dramatic excellence in the age of Elizabeth: there was no society for the encouragement of works of wit and humour in the reign of Charles II.: no committee of taste ever voted Congreve, or Steele, or Swift, a silver vase, or a gold medal, for their comic vein : Hogarth was not fostered in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy. In plain truth, that is not the way in which that sort of harvest is produced. The seeds must be sown in the mind : there is a fulness of the blood, a plethoric habit of thought, that breaks out with the first opportunity on the surface of society. Poetry has sprung up indigenously, spontaneously, at all times of our history, and under all circumstances, with or without encouragement: it is therefore a rich, natural product of the mind of the country, unforced, unpampered, unsophisticated. It is obviously and entirely genuine, the unbought grace of life.' If it be asked, why Painting has all this time kept back, has not dared to show its face, or retired ashamed of its poverty and deformity, the answer is plain--because it did not shoot out with equal vigour and luxuriance from the soil of English genius--because it was not the native language and idiom of the country. Why then are we bound to suppose that it will shoot up now to an unequalled height-why are we confidently told and required to predict to others that it is about to produce wonders, when we see no such thing; when these very persons tell us that there has been hitherto no such thing, but that it must and shall be revealed in their time and persons ? And though they complain that that public patronage which they invoke, and which they pretend is alone wanting to produce the high and palmy state

of art to which they would have us look forwarı, is entirely and scandalously withheld from it, and likely to be so!

We turn from this subject to another not less melancholy or singular,-from the imperfect and abortive atteinpts at art in this country formerly, to its present state of degeneracy and decay in Italy. Speaking of Sir Joshua's arrival at Rome in the year 1749, Mr Farington indulges in the following remarks.

« On his arrival at Rome, he found Pompeo Battoni, a native of Lucca, possessing the highest reputation. His name was, indeed, known in every part of Europe, and was every where spoken of as almost another Raphael ; but in that great school of art, such was the admiration he excited, or rather such was the degradation of taste, that the students in painting had no liigher ambition than to be his imitators.

Battoni had some talent, but his works are dry, cold, and insipid. That such performances should have been so extolled in the very seat and centre of the fine arts, seems wonderful. But in this manner has public taste been operated upon; and from the period when art was carried to the highest point of excellence known in modern times, it has thus gradually declined. A succession of artists followed each other, who, being esteemed the most eminent in their own time, were praised extravagantly by an ignorant public; and in the several schools they established, their own productions were the only objects of study. .

So widely spread was the fame of Battoni, that, before Reynolds left England, his patron, Lord Edgcumbe, strongly urged the expediency of placing himself under the tuition of so great a man. This recommendation, however, on seeing the works of that master, he did not choose to follow : which showed that he was then above the level of those whose professional views all concentrated in the productions of the popular favourite. Indeed nothing could be more opposite to the spirited execution, the high relish of colour, and powerful effect, which the works of Reynolds at that time possessed, than the tame and inanimate pictures of Pompeo Battoni. Taking a wiser course, therefore, he formed his own plan, and studied chiefly in the Vatican, from the works of Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto, with great diligence; such indeed was his application, that to a severe cold, which he caught in those apartments, he owed the deafness which continued during the remainder of his life.' p. 31.

This account may serve to show that Italy is no longer Italy : why it is so, is a question of greater difficulty. The soil, the climate, the religion, the people are the same; and the men and women in the streets of Rome still look as if they had walked out of Raphael's pictures; but there is no Raphael to paint them, nor does any Lco arise to encourage them. This seems to prove that the perfection of art is the destruction of art : that the models of this kind, by their accumulation, block up the path of genius; and that all attempts at distinction lead, after a certain period, to a mere lifeless copy of what has been done before, or a vapid, distorted, and extravagant caricature of it. This is but a poor prospect for those who set out late in art, and who have all the excellence of their predecessors, and all the fastidious refinements of their own taste, the temptations of indolence, and the despair of vanity, to distract and encumber their efforts. The artists who revel in the luxuries of genius thus prepared by their predecessors, clog their wings with the honeyed sweets, and get drunk with the intoxicating nectar. They become servitors and lacqueys to Art, not devoted servants of Nature, the fluttering, foppish, lazy retinue of some great name. The contemplation of unattainable excellence casts a film over their eyes, and unnerves their hands. They look on, and do nothing. In Italy, it costs them a month to paint a hand, a year an eye: the feeble pencil drops from their grasp, while they wonder to see an Englishman make a hasty copy of the Transfiguration, turn over a port-folio of Piranesi's drawings for their next historical design, and read Winckelman on virtù! We do much the same here, in all our collections and exhibitions of modern or ancient paintings, and of the Elgin marbles, to boot. A picture-gallery serves very well for a place to lounge in, ånd talk about; but it does not make the student go home and set heartily to work :-he would rather come again and lounge, and talk, the next day, and the day after that. He cannot do all that he sees there; and less will not satisfy his expansive and refined ambition. He would be all the painters that ever were--or none. His indolence combines with his vanity, like alternate doses of provocatives and sleeping-draughts. He copies, howa ever, a favourite picture, (though he thinks copying bad in general),-or makes a chalk-drawing of it-or gets some one else to do it for him.-We might go on : but we have written what many people will call a lampoon already!

There is another view of the subject more favourable and encouraging to ourselves, and yet not immeasurably so, when all circumstances are considered. All that was possible had been formerly done for art in Italy, so that nothing more was left to be done. That is not the case with us yet." Perfection is not the insurmountable obstacle to our success : we have enough to do, if we knew how. That is some inducement to proceed. We can hardly be retrograde in our course. But there is a difficulty in the way,—no less than our Establishment in Church and State. Rome was the capital of the Christian and of the civilized world. Her mitre swayed the sceptres of the earth; and the

VOL. XXXIV. No. 67.

[ocr errors]

of a people who were in themselves learned, ingenious, and highly cultivated in all things, excepting the arts of design. • In consequence of this privation, it was conceived that a Public Exhibition of the works of the most eminent Artists could not fail to make a powerful impression ; and if occasionally repeated, might ul. timately produce the most satisfactory effects. The scheme was no sooner proposed than adopted ; and being carried into immediate execution, the result exceeded the most sanguine expectations of the projectors. All ranks of people crowded to see the delightful novelty ; it was the universal topic of conversation; and a passion for the arts was excited by that first manifestation of native talent, which, cherished by the continued operation of the same cause, has ever since been increasing in strength, and extending its effects through every part of the Empire.

The history of our Exhibitions affords itself the strongest evi. dence of their impressive effect upon public taste. At their commencement, though men of enlightened minds could distinguish and appreciate what was excellent, the admiration of the many was confined to subjects either gross or puerile, and commonly to the means est efforts of intellect ; whereas, at this time, the whole train of subjects most popular in the earlier exhibitions have disappeared. The loaf and cheese, that could provoke hunger, the cat and canary-bird, and the dead mackarel on a deal-board, have long ceased to produce astonishment and delight; while truth of imitation now finds innumer. able admirers, though combined with the high qualities of beauty, grandeur, and taste.

To our Public Exhibitions, and to arrangements that followed in consequence of their introduction, this change must be chiefly attributed. The present generation appears to be composed of a new, and at least, with respect to the arts, a superior order of beings. Generally speaking, their thoughts, their feelings, and language on these subjects differ entirely from what they were sixty years ago. No just opinions were at that time entertained on the merits of ingenious productions of this kind. The state of the public mind, incapable of disa criminating excellence from inferiority, proved incontrovertibly that a right sense of art in the spectator can only be acquired by long and frequent observation; and that, without proper opportunities to improve the mind and the eye, a nation would continue insensible of the true value of the fine arts.

The first or probationary Exhibition, which opened April 21st, 1760, was at a large room in the Strand, belonging to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, which had then been instituted five or six years. It is natural to conclude, that the first artist in the country was not indifferent to the success of a plan which promised to be so extensively useful. Accordingly, four of his pictures were for the first time here placed before the public, with whom, by the channel now opened, he continued in constant intercourse as long as he lived.

· Encouraged by the successful issue of the first experiment, the artistical body determined that it should be repeated the following year. Owing, however, to some inconveniences experienced at their former place of exhibition, and also to a desire to be perfectly independent in their proceedings, they engaged, for their next public display, a spacious room near the Spring Gardens' entrance into the Park; at which place the second Exhibition opened, May 9th, 1761. Here Reynolds sent his fine picture of Lord Ligonier on horseback, a por. trait of the Rev. Laurence Sterne, and three others. . i ....

The artists had now fully proved the efficacy of their plan; and their income exceeding their expenditure, affording a reasonable hope of a permanent establishment, they thought they might solicit a Royal Charter of Incorporation; and having applied to his Majesty for that purpose, he was pleased to accede to their request. This measure, however, which was intended to consolidate the body of artists, was of no avail : on the contrary, it was probably the cause of its dissolution; for in less than four years a separation took place, which led to the establishment of the Royal Academy, and finally to the extinction of the incorporated Society. The charter was dated January 26th, 1765; the secession took place in October, 1768; and the Royal Academy was instituted December 10th in the same year.' p. 53.

On this statement we must be allowed to make a few remarks, First, the four greatest names in English art, Hogarth, Reynolds, Wilson * and West, were not formed by the Academy, but were formed before it; and the first gave it as his opinion, that it would be a death-blow to the art. He considered an Academy as a school for servile mediocrity, a hotbed for cabal and dirty competition, and a vehicle for the display of idle pretensions and empty parade.

Secondly, we agree with the writer as to the deplorable state of the art and of the public taste in general, which, at the period in question, was as gross as it was insipid: but we do not think that it has been improved so much since, as Mr Farington is willing to suppose; nor that the Academy has taken more than half-measures for improving or refining it.

They found it poor at first, and kept it so.' They have attended to their own interests, and flattered their customers, while they have neglected or cajoled the public, They may indeed look back with triumph and pity to the cat and canary-bird, the dead mackarel and Deal board;' but they seem to rest satisfied with this conquest over themselves, and, • leaving the things that are behind, have not pressed forward (with equal ardour) to the things that are before.' Theirs is a

* This name, for some reason or other, does not once occur in these Memoirs,

« السابقةمتابعة »