Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Romantic inspirations

The rejection of the Academy and the pursuit of nature.

Compare and Contrast
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-portrait 1748.
William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug 1745

Reynolds, Discourse III, 1769: “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied. There are excellencies in the art of painting beyond what is commonly called the imitation of nature…”

Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, 1753: ..”I would fain have such of my readers be assured, that however they may have been aw’d, and over-born by pompous terms of art, hard names, and the parade of seemingly magnificent collections of pictures and statues; they are in a much fairer way, ladies, as well as gentlemen, of gaining a perfect knowledge of the elegant and beautiful in artificial, as well as by natural forms, by considering them in a systematical, but at the same time familiar way, than those who have been prepossess’d by dogmatic rules, taken from the performances of art only: nay, I will venture to say, sooner, and more rationally, than even a tolerable painter, who has imbibed the same prejudices.”

Reynolds Ideal Art
-“intellectual dignity” : which was culled from heaven and arrived at by mental labour.
-the fruits of experience
-ideal beauty
-an understanding of the principles of Beauty
-simplicity of nature based upon antiquity ie NOT based upon the faddish or the contemporary.
-nobleness of conception ie not low
-subject matter carefully selected from history or literature (Shakespeare was a particularly English source
-grandeur of scale

Compare and Contrast
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait. 1780
James Barry (1741-1806) Self Portrait, 1803. 

Reynolds on Michelangelo
“I will not say Michael Angelo was eminently poetic only because he was greatly mechanical, but I am sure that mechanic excellence invigorated and emboldened his mind to carry painting into the regions of poetry.”

Barry the Hero.
Sculpture - Hercules crushing the serpent Envy.
Note the date: Barry was 60 years old. He paints himself as the young hero he once set out to be.
The painting he holds is Sleeping Cyclops.
This is his version of Pliny’s description of a painting by Timanthes, the early Greek artist famed for his naturalism.

Bread and apples
1777-83 Barry painted - at no charge - The Progress of Human Culture for Society of Arts.

“Who will dare say that polite art is encourages or either wished or tolerated in a nation where society for the encouragement of Art suffer’d Barry to give them his labour for nothing, a society composed of the flower of English nobility and gentry? – suffering an artist to starve while he supported what they, under the pretence of encouraging, were endeavouring to depress – Barry told me that while he did that work he lived on bread and apples.” William Blake’s marginal comments of Reynolds’s Discourses.

Reynolds Third Discourse, 1769
“Every species of the animal as well as the vegetable creation may be said to have a fixed or determinate form, towards which Nature is continually inclining, like various lines terminating in the centre”

The basic theme in the Third Discourse was that the business of an artist was not the mere slavish copying of Nature. The “mere copier of nature” would never produce “great” work, something further was required. The painter was to do more than entertain, to delight or to fool. The painter was to realize grand ideas and captivate the imagination. This consisted in realizing the perfect form, the ideal beauty:

“The principle laid down that the perfection of this art does not consist in mere imitation, is far from being new or singular. It is, indeed, supported by the general opinion of the enlightened part of mankind. The poets, orators, and rhetoricians of antiquity, are continually enforcing this position, - that all the arts receive their perfection from an ideal beauty, superior to what is found in individual nature.”

Central form
The object itself is real but its identity is to be judged against an ideal reality which exists in the natural conception of the object. The recognition of this ideal is a problematic for artists. The person, argues Reynolds, who has viewed as many examples of an object as possible is the one most able to discern the degree to which it coincides with the ideal.

“Thus it is from a reiterated experience, and a close comparison of the objects in Nature, that an artist becomes possessed of the idea of that central form, if I may so express it, from which every deviation is deformity.”

The accumulated observation of the particular was therefore the basis upon which Reynolds initially approached the perception of beauty : “To distinguish beauty, then, implies the having seen many individuals of that species.” 

“..the power of discovering what is deformed in Nature, or, in other words, what is particular and uncommon, can be acquired only by experience; and the whole beauty and grandeur of art consists, in my opinion, in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities and details of every kind.” 

1772 The Fifth Discourse
“If you mean to preserve the most perfect beauty in its most perfect state, you cannot express the passions, all of which produce distortion and deformity, more or less, in the most beautiful faces.”

“We need not be mortified or discouraged at not being able to execute the conceptions of a romantic imagination. Art has its boundaries, though imagination has none.”

“Our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.” Reynolds
“Reynolds thinks that Man Learns all that he knows. I say on the Contrary that Man Brings All that he has or can have Into the world with him.” William Blake

Compare and Contrast
Sir Joshua Reynolds The Ladies Waldegrave1780
Henry Fuseli The Nightmare exhibited 1782

Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
1799: Professor of Painting at Royal Academy
1804: Keeper of the Academy
"Damn Nature! she always puts me out!"

“Talent thinks, genius sees.” William Blake
“This man was hired to depress Art.” William Blake on Reynolds
“the Poetic Genius is the True Man!” William Blake.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality in 1750.
Joseph Wright of Derby, Sir Brooke Boothby, 1781 (Tate)
Edited and translated into English by Brooke Boothby .
Here in an obviously stage managed portrait. In his hand is Confessions, Rousseau’s autobiography.

Rousseau’s fundamental idea was that the contemplation of nature could be illuminating and liberating.
By encouraging us to experience feelings internally nature might lead us to truth.

Hitherto emotion had been mistrusted, seen as anti-philosophical. In the pre-Rouseau world the seeker after truth was cold and calculating.

Thereafter the Man of Feeling (the name of a novel by the Scottish writer Henry Mackenzie pub 1771) could use emotion to work out what was virtuous in the world.

Rousseau believed the man was fallen from a state of nature. This original state represented the core of truth which the philosophical contemplation of feeling and nature was calculated to revive.
For Rousseau this original state was essentially moral, stable and good.

For Rousseau natural man was good and lived in a harmonious and beneficial commune with the world and all the creatures in it.
The men (and ladies) of feeling were also interested in early societies; antiquity promised closeness to nature.

Some of the late 18th century preoccupations now seem elaborate, overwrought and misguided; the cult of Ossian for instance. The supposed Northern bard was largely a fiction created (1762-3) by its “translator” James MacPherson.

“Had I been a painter I never would have copied the works of “Old Masters”…. I would have gone to nature for all my patterns, for she exhibits an endless variety – not possible to be surpassed and scarcely ever to be equalled….. in art nothing is worth looking at but such productions as have been faithfully copied from nature.” Thomas Bewick, Memoir written 1823.

extracts from Reynolds and Hogarth in Art and Its Histories: a Reader,ed Edwards S. (1999) Yale University Press

Next week: Art skills for the working man: industry and the Government art scheme (South Kensington, John Ruskin) 27th October.

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