OPINIONS: NOTES ON REYNOLDS. 1820. [ÆT. 63]
FROM internal evidence I judge 1820, or there¬about, to have been the date of the Notes to Reynolds’ Discourses, already referred to. The present, therefore, is a fit place to give the reader a taste of them, eminently characteristic as they are of the vehement, one-sided enthusiast. In the same in¬dignant strain as that in which the Notes began, comment¬ing on the patronage of his day, is written on the fly-leaf the following curious doggrel
Advice of the Popes who succeeded the Age of Raphael.
Degrade first the Arts if you would mankind degrade;
Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade;
Give high price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace,
And with labour of idleness fill every place.
In plain prose he asks, ‘ Who will dare to say that ‘polite Art’ is encouraged, or either wished or tolerated, in a nation where the Society of Arts suffered Barry to give them his labour for nothing? A Society composed of the flower of the English nobility and gentry, suffering an artist to starve, while he really supported what they, under pretence of encouraging, were endeavouring to depress! Barry told me that while he did that,’—painted, namely, the pictures in the Society’s Great Room at the Adelphi,—‘ he lived on bread and apples.
‘O! Society for the Encouragement of Art! King and Nobility of England, where have you hid Fuseli’s Milton? Is Satan troubled
at his exposure?’ alluding to Fuseli’s Satan building the Bridge. At the words in Reynolds’ Dedication to the King—‘royal liberality,’ he exclaims, ‘Liberality! we want no liberality! we want a fair price and proportionate value, and a general demand for Art. Let not that nation where less than nobility is the ‘reward’ pretend that Art is encouraged by that nation. Art is first in intellect, and ought to be first in nations.
At page 120, Blake tells the following anecdote, bearing on orator Burke’s vaunted patronage of Barry: ‘Barry painted a picture for Burke equal to Raphael or Michael Angelo, or any of the Italians (!). Burke used to show this picture to his friends, and to say, “I gave twenty guineas, for this horrible daub, and if anyone would give me **”’ The remainder of the sentence has been cut off by the binder, but may easily be guessed,—‘Such was Burke’s patronage of Art and Science.’ A little further on Blake declares ‘the neglect of Fuseli’s Milton, in a country pre-tending to the encouragement of Art, is a sufficient apology for my vigorous indignation: if, indeed, the neg¬lect of my own powers had not been. Ought not the employers of fools to be execrated in future ages? They will and SHALL! Foolish men I your own real greatness depends on the encouragement of the Arts; and your fall will depend on their neglect and depression. What you fear is your own interest Leo the Tenth was advised not to encourage the Arts. He was too wise to take this advice. The rich men of England form themselves into a Society,’ (alluding to the British Institution, founded in 1805,) ‘a Society to sell and not to buy, pictures. The artist who does not throw his contempt on such trading Exhibitions does not know either his own interest or his own duty—
When nations grow old
The Arts grow cold,
And Commerce settles on every tree;
And the poor and the old
Can live upon gold,
For all are born poor.
Which concluding enigmatical line indicates, I presume, the age of the annotator at the date of writing.
Again, still alluding to his own case: ‘The inquiry in England is, not whether a man has talents and genius, but whether he is passive and polite, and a virtuous ass, and obedient to noblemen’s opinions in art and science. If he is, he is a good man; if not, he must be starved.’
In a highly personal strain of sarcastic allusion to the favoured portrait-painters of his era, Blake scribbles in verse—
Some look to see the sweet outlines
And beauteous forms that Love does wear;
Some look to find out patches, paint,
Bracelets and stays and powdered hair.
And in even more eccentric vein:—
When Sir Joshua Reynolds died,
All nature was degraded;
The king dropped a tear
Into the queen’s ear,
And all his pictures faded. (!)
Angels of light make sorry wits—handle mere terrestrial weapons of sarcasm and humorous assault in a very clumsy, ineffectual manner.
‘I consider Reynolds’ Discourses to the Royal Academy,’ our annotator in plainer, if still startling words announces, ‘as the simulation of the hypocrite who smiles particularly when he means to betray. His praise of Raphael is like the hysteric smile of revenge; his softness and candour the hidden trap and the poisoned feast.
He praises Michael Angelo for qualities which Michael Angelo ab¬horred; and he blames Raphael for the only qualities which Raphael valued. Whether Reynolds knew what he was doing is nothing to me. The mischief is the same whether a man does it ignorantly or knowingly. I always considered true art and true artists to be particularly insulted and degraded by the reputation of these Dis¬courses; as much as they were degraded by the reputation of Reynolds’ paintings; and that such artists as Reynolds are, at all times, hired by Satan for the depression of art: a pretence of art to destroy art.’ A sufficiently decided opinion.
At page 20 we read—‘Mem. That I may make a note on ‘sudden and irresistible approbation.’’ This threat is in reference to Sir Joshua’s observations respecting the kindling effect of the great examples of Art on the Student’s mind. ‘How grossly inconsistent with what he says somewhere on the Vatican!’ At page 17 of the First Discourse, where, after cautioning the student against fol¬lowing his ‘vague and uncertain ideas of beauty,’ and drawing the figure not as it is, but as he fancies it ought to be, Reynolds adds that the habit of drawing correctly what we see gives the power of drawing correctly what we imagine:—‘ Excellent!’ is Blake’s comment; and further on, ‘This is admirably said! Why does he not always allow as much?’ Instances of praise seldom elicited. Once, indeed, he finds a passage wholly after his own heart:—‘A firm and determined outline is one of the character¬istics of the great style in painting.’ Against which is written: ‘Here is a noble sentence! a sentence which over¬throws all his book.’
On Sir Joshua’s singular inconsistency in condemning generalization in one place, while approving and recom¬mending it in a hundred, he remarks: ‘The contradictions in Reynolds’ Discourses are strong presumption that they are the work of several hands; but this is no proof that Reynolds did not write them. The man, either painter
or philosopher, who learns or acquires all he knows from others, must be full of contradictions.’ And elsewhere, more definitely, on this subject of generalization he says: ‘Real effect is making out the parts, and it is nothing else but that.’
Expressive of the special creed of Blake, to whom invention and meaning were all in all, and of his low estimate of the great rhetoricians in painting,—Correggio, the Venetians, Rubens, and those whom we weak mortals have been wont to admire as great colourists,—is such a note as this, at the beginning of the Second Discourse:— ‘The laboured works of journeymen employed by Cor¬reggio, Titian, Veronese, and all the Venetians, ought not to be shown to the young artist as the works of original conception, any more than the works of Strange, Bartolozzi, or Woollett. They are works of manual labour.’
Blake cherished his visionary tendency as an essential function of imagination. ‘Mere enthusiasm,’ he here declares, ‘is the all in all.’ And again—’ The man who asserts that there is no such thing as softness in art, and that everything is definite and determinate’ (which is what Blake was ever asserting), ‘has not been told this by practice, but by inspiration and vision; because vision is determinate and perfect and he copies that without fatigue. Everything seen is definite and determinate. Softness is produced by comparative strength and weak¬ness, alone, in the marking of the forms. I say these principles would never be found out by the study of nature, without con- or innate science.’
With no more than justice he remarks on the very weakest feature in Sir Joshua’s system: ‘Reynolds’ opinion was, that genius may be taught, and that all pretence to inspiration is a lie or deceit, to say the least of it. If it is deceit, the whole Bible is madness. This opinion’ (of Sir Joshua’s) ‘originates in the Greeks calling the Muses daughters of Memory.’ In the same spirit, and with truth too, he of the Third Discourse ener¬getically avers: ‘The following Discourse is particularly interesting to blockheads,
as it endeavours to prove that there is no such thing as inspiration, and that any man of a plain understanding may, by thieving from others, become a Michael Angelo.’
So, too, when Reynolds tells his hearers that ‘en¬thusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge’; and proceeds to encourage the student who perceives in his mind ‘nothing of that divine inspiration with which he is told so many others have been favoured’; who ‘never travelled to heaven to gather new ideas,’ &c., Blake answers: ‘And such is the coldness with which Reynolds speaks! and such is his enmity! Enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of knowledge, and its last. How he begins to degrade, to deny, and to mock! The man who on examining his own mind finds nothing of inspiration, ought not to dare to be an artist: he is a fool, and a cunning knave suited to the purposes of evil demons. The man who never in his mind and thought travelled to heaven, is no artist. It is evident that Reynolds wished none but fools to be in the arts; and in order to this, he calls all others vague enthusiasts or madmen. What has reasoning to do with the art of painting?’
Characteristic opinions are the following:—
‘Knowledge of ideal beauty is not to be acquired. It is born with us. Innate ideas are in every man, born with him; they are truly himself. The man who says that we have no innate ideas must be a fool and knave; having no conscience, or innate science.’ And yet it is a question metaphysicians have been discussing since metaphysics began.
Again: ‘One central form composed of all other forms being granted, it does not therefore follow that all other forms are deformity. All forms are perfect in the poet’s mind: but these are not abstracted or compounded from nature; they are from imagination.’
On some of the more technical points respecting art, Blake
observes: ‘No-one can ever design till he has learned the language of Art by making many finished copies both of Nature and Art, and of whatever comes in his way, from earliest childhood. The difference between a bad artist and a good is, that the bad artist seems to copy a great deal, the good one does copy a great deal.’
‘To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the great distinction of merit.’
‘Servile copying is the great merit of copying.’
‘Execution is the Chariot of Genius.’
‘Invention depends altogether upon execution or organization. As that is right or wrong, so is the inven¬tion perfect or imperfect. Michael Angelo’s art depends on Michael Angelo’s execution altogether.’
‘Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.’
‘Passion and expression are beauty itself. The face that is incapable of passion and expression is deformity itself, let it be painted and patched and praised and advertised for ever. It will be admired only by fools.’
With strong reprobation our annotator breaks forth when Sir Joshua quotes Vasari to the effect that Albert Dürer ‘would have been one of the finest painters of his age, if,’ &c. ‘Albert Dürer is not ‘would have been’! Besides, let them look at Gothic figures and Gothic buildings, and not talk of ‘Dark Ages,’ or of any ‘Ages’! Ages are all equal, but genius is always above its Age.’
‘A sly dog!’, ‘He makes little concessions that he may take great advantages,’ says Blake, àpropos of the remark that the Venetians, notwithstanding their surpass¬ing excellence as colourists, did not attain to the ‘great style,’ but, with ‘splendour’ of manner, concealed poverty of meaning. ‘If the Venetian’s outline were right, his shadows would destroy it,’ persists Blake. And
finally, unable to give vent to the full measure of his contempt in plain prose, he breaks out into an epigram:—
On the Venetian Painter.
He makes the lame to walk, we all agree;
But then he strives to blind all who can see!
Many readers of the present day, who have learned to almost worship the transcendent Venetian painters— Giorgione, Titian, Tintoret, Veronese, not to speak of the Bellini, Carpaccio, &c.—may be startled to note Blake’s pertinacious scorn of them. Such readers will do well to remember that Blake, who had never been abroad, must have formed his idea of the Venetians almost wholly from engravings, and from what writers like Reynolds say of the characteristics of the school. ‘He had picked up his notions of Titian,’ says Mr. Palmer, ‘from picture-dealers’ “Titians!”’
When Reynolds speaks of fresco as ‘a mode of painting which excludes attention to minute elegancies,’ Blake observes, ‘This is false. Fresco-painting is the most minute. It is like miniature painting. A wall is a large ivory.’
In the Fifth Discourse we are told that Raphael ‘was never able’ (in his easel-pictures) ‘to conquer perfectly that dryness, or even littleness of manner, which he in¬herited from his master.’ Upon which, Blake: ‘He who does not admire Raphael’s execution does not even see Raphael!‘ And the assertion that Raphael owes the grandeur of his style, and much else, to Michael Angelo, is met by a favourite simile of Blake’s: ‘I believe this no more than I believe that the rose teaches the lily how to grow, or that the apple teaches the pear tree how to bear fruit.’
Prefatory to the same Discourse Blake writes, ‘Gains¬borough told a gentleman of rank and fortune that the worst painters always chose the grandest subjects. I desired the gentleman to
set Gainsborough about one of Raphael’s grandest subjects, namely, Christ delivering the Keys to St. Peter; and he would find that in Gainsborough’s hands it would be a vulgar subject of poor fishermen and a journeyman carpenter. The following Discourse is written with the same end in view Gainsborough had in making the above assertion; namely, to represent vulgar artists as the models of executive merit.’
And again: ‘Real effect is making out the parts. Why are we to be told that masters, who could think, had not the judgment to perform the inferior parts of art? (as Reynolds artfully calls them); that we are to learn to think from great masters, and to perform from underlings— to learn to design from Raphael, and to execute from Rubens?’
Blake had, in truth, just personal grounds for speaking with indignant emphasis on this topic. ‘The lavish praise I have received from all quarters for invention and draw¬ing,’ says he elsewhere, ‘has generally been accompanied by this: ‘He can conceive, but he cannot execute.’ This absurd assertion has done, and may still do me the greatest mischief.’
In the MS. note-book are some stray verses, manifestly the overflowings of the same mood as these notes. We shall be best able to appreciate their vigour of meaning, and tolerate the occasional hobbling of the verse, by taking them in connexion with the foregoing:—
Raphael, sublime, majestic, graceful, wise,—
His executive power must I despise?—
Rubens, low, vulgar, stupid, ignorant,—
His power of execution I must grant!
The cripple every step drudges and labours,
And says, ‘Come, learn to walk of me, good neighbours!’
Sir Joshua, in astonishment, cries out,
‘See what great labour springs from modest doubt
Call that the public voice which is their error:
Like as a monkey, peeping in a mirror,
Admireth all his colours brown and warm,
And never once perceives his ugly form.
On Sir Joshua again:—
No real style of colouring now appears,
Save thro’ advertisements in the newspapers;
Look there—you’ll see Sir Joshua’s colouring:
Look at his pictures—all has taken wing!
I think it may not be superfluous to take into account here, as we did when first alluding to these notes on Reynolds, all the sources of Blake’s hostility towards the universally admired and extolled Prince of English Portrait-painting. The deepest of these was the honest contempt of a man with high spiritual aims for one whose goal, though honourable, and far above the common attainment, was at as widely different an altitude from Blake’s as the mere earthly hill-top from the star which shines down upon it. Hence the entire antagonism of their views; for such different ends must be reached by wholly different means. It is no invalidation of this high claim for Blake to add that the vivid contrast of their respective lots was another source; for recognition is dear to every gifted man, how¬ever unworldly, however sincere his indifference to those goods of fortune which ordinarily accompany recognition, but are the mere accidents of which that is the precious substance.
There was also, I am bound to confess (and it Is not much to confess either), some personal antipathy in the case which added, doubtless, an extra dash of sharpness to the flavour of these pungent notes, and would seem to have originated in an interview (probably
anterior to the one already described), at which Blake’s experiences were not wholly of Sir Joshua’s ‘blandness.’ ‘Once I remember his talking to me of Reynolds,’ writes a surviving friend: ‘he became furious at what the latter had dared to say of his early works. When a very young man he had called on Reynolds to show him some designs, and had been recommended to work with less extravagance and more simplicity, and to correct his drawing. This Blake seemed to regard as an affront never to be forgotten. He was very indignant when he spoke of it.’
At page 61 of the Notes we are introduced to another of Blake’s antipathies:—‘ The ‘great Bacon,’ as he is called (I call him the little Bacon), says that everything must be done by experiment. His first principle is un¬belief, and yet here he says that art must be produced without such method. He is like Sir Joshua, full of self-contradiction and knavery.’ Bacon, known to Blake by his Essays, was also Antichrist in his eyes. The high worldly wisdom and courtier-like sagacity, not unmingled with politic craft, of those Essays, were alien to the sym¬pathies of the republican spiritualist, despite the imagina¬tive form with which those qualities are clothed in Bacon’s grand speech,—his stately, organ-like eloquence.
The artist’s copy of the Essays, a duodecimo, published by Edwards, in 1798, is roughly annotated in pencil in a very characteristic if very unreasonable fashion; marginal notes dating, I should say, during the latter years of Blake’s life. We have frequent indignant comment and execration. The epithets ‘fool,’ ‘liar;’ ‘villain,’ ‘atheist,’ nay, ‘Satan,’ and even (most singular of all) ‘stupid,’ are freely indulged in. There is in these notes, however, none of that leaven of real sense and acumen which tempers the violence of those on Reynolds. Bound by the interests of faithful biography, we will borrow a few characteristic sen¬tences; but only a few.
‘Good advice for Satan’s kingdom,’ is the inscription on the
title-page. ‘Is it true or is it false,’ asks the anno¬tator, ‘that the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God? This is certain: if what Bacon says is true, what Christ says is false. If Caesar is right, Christ is wrong, both in politics and religion, since they will divide them¬selves in two.’ ‘Everybody knows,’ he writes again, ‘that this is epicurism and libertinism, and yet everybody says that it is Christian philosophy. How is this possible? Everybody must be a liar and deceiver? No! ‘Every-body’ does not do this; but the hirelings of Kings and Courts, who made themselves ‘everybody,’ and knowingly propagate falsehood. It was a common opinion in the Court of Queen Elizabeth that knavery is wisdom. Cun¬ning plotters were considered as wise Machiavels.’
Whatever Bacon may say, his singular annotator refuses to be pleased. When the former innocently enough tells us, ‘It is great blasphemy to personate God, and bring him in saying, ‘I will demand,’ &c., Blake answers: ‘Did not Jesus descend and become a servant? The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman and not a man: he is a Lord Chancellor.’
Characteristic comment on the Essay on Virtue is this:— ‘What do these knaves mean by virtue? Do they mean war and its horrors, and its heroic villains?’ ‘Good thoughts,’ says Bacon, ‘are little better than good dreams.’ ‘Thought is act,’ replies Blake: ‘Christ’s acts were nothing to Cæsar’s, if this is not so.’ When Bacon, after the fashion of his age, says, ‘The increase of any State must be upon the foreigner,’ the artist, innocent of political economy though he be, has for once what would be gener¬ally considered nowadays in part a just retort: ‘The increase of a State, as of a man, is from internal improve¬ment or intellectual acquirement. Man is not improved by the hurt of another. States are not improved at the expense of foreigners.’ Again: ‘Bacon calls intellectual arts unmanly: and so they are for kings and wars, and shall in the end annihilate them.’ ‘What is fortune
but an outward accident? for a few years, sixty at the most, and then gone!’
‘King James was Bacon’s primum mobile,’ exclaims the scornful Blake. And elsewhere his political prejudices ex¬plode in an amusing way. The philosopher speaks of ‘mighty Princes’;—the ‘ Powers of Darkness; responds Blake. Again: ‘A tyrant is the worst disease, and the cause of all others!’ And in the same spirit: ‘Everybody hates a king! David was afraid to say that the envy was upon a king: but is this envy or indignation?’
And here let the singular dialogue at cross-purposes end.