« ZurückWeiter »
parallel entirely fails. To give a new turn to the sense of a sentence, or avail himself of a line or two from an early author, is allowed to a modern poet. But should he bring away an entire character, and employ it with the whole costume of thought unaltered, then he is a plagiarist; and such in many instances seems to have been Sir Joshua. His best defence is, that he borrowed to improve, and stole that he might show his own power of colouring. Most of the songs of Burns, works unrivalled for nature and passion, are constructed on the stray verse or vagrant line of some forgotten bard. But then the poet only employed those as the starting notes to his own inimitable strains, and never stole the fashion and hue of any entire lyric.
An attack such as that of Hone seemed to affect the friends of the artist more than it did himself; he said nothing, and the subject passed to oblivion. One of a more serious nature, and less easy to refute, was made in some of the public prints concerning the instability of the colours which he used in painting. He was accused of employing lake and carmine-colours of a nature liable to speedy decay-and, in short, making frequent experiments at the expense of others. It was urged, that he knew those glossy and gaudy colours would not endure long; and it was hinted, that though the experiments which he made might be for the advancement of art, they were injurious to individuals, who purchased blooming works, which were destined to fade in their possession like the flowers of the field.
Of the danger of using such colours Sir Joshua was at length convinced; but not until strong symptoms of decay had appeared in many of his own works; as yet he zealously defended the propriety of his experiments with his pen as well as in conversation. In one of his memorandums he says, with much co.nplacency,_"I was always
willing to believe that my uncertainty of proceeding in my works—that is, my never being sure of my hand, and my frequent alterations-arose from a refined taste, which could not acquiesce in any thing short of a high degree of excellence. I had not an opportunity of being early initiated in the principles of colouring; no man indeed could teach me. If I have never settled with respect to colouring, let it at the same time be remarked that my unsteadiness in this respect proceeded from an inordinate desire to possess every kind of excellence that I saw in the works of others, without considering that there are in colouring, as in style, excellences which are incompatible with each other. We all know how often those masters who sought after colouring changed their manner; while others, merely from not seeing various modes, acquiesced all their lives in that with which they set out. On the contrary, I tried every effect of colour, and, by leaving out every colour in its turn, showed each colour that I could do without it. As I alternately left out every colour I tried every new colour; and often, as is well known, failed. I was influenced by no idle or foolish affectation. My fickleness in the mode of colouring arose from an eager desire to attain the highest excellence. This is the only merit I can assume to myself from my conduct in that respect.”
It is to be regretted that he continued these experiments for a long course of years, and that they infected more or less many of the finest of his works. He was exceedingly touchy of tempe on the subject of colouring, and reproved Northcote with some sharpness for insinuating that Kneller used vermillion in his flesh-colour. “What signifies,” said he,“ what a man used who could not colour?-you may use it if you will.” He never allowed his pupils to make experiments, and on observing one of them emploving some unusual compounds, exclaimed, “Thai boy will never do 20d with his gullipots of varnish and foolish mix.
tures.” The secret of Sir Joshua's own preparations was carefully kept-he permitted not even the most favoured of his pupils to acquire the knowledge of his colours he had all securely locked, and allowed no one to enter where these treasures were deposited. What was the use of all this secrecy ?-those who stole the mystery of his colours could not use it unless they stole his skill and talent also. A man who, like Reynolds, chooses to take upon himself the double office of public and private instructer of students in painting, ought not, surely, to retain to himself a secret in the art which he considers to be of real value.
He was fond of seeking into the secrets of the old painters; and dissected some of their performances without remorse or scruple, to ascertain their mode of laying on colour and finishing with effect. Titian he conceived to be the great masterspirit in portraiture; and no enthusiast in usury ever sought more incessantly for the secret of the philosopher's stone, than did Reynolds to possess himself of the whole theory and practice of the Venetian. But this was a concealed pursuit; he disclosed his discoveries to none; he lectured on Michael Angelo, and discoursed on Raphael; but he studied and dreamed of Titian. “ To possess," said the artist, “a real fine picture by that great master, I would sell all my gallery-I would wil. lingly ruin myself.” The capital old paintings of the Venetian school which Sir Joshua's experiments destroyed, were not few, and it may be questioned if his discoveries were a compensation for their loss. The wilful destruction of a work of genius is a sort of murder, committed for the sake of art ; and the propriety of the act is very questionable. “I considered myself,” said he, in a private memorandum preserved by Malone, “ as playing a great game, and, instead of beginning to save money, I laid it out as fast as I got it in purchasing the best examples of art; I even borrowed money for this
purpose. The possessing portraits by Titian, Vandyke, Rembrandt, &c. I considered as the best kind of wealth. By this kind of contemplation we are taught to think in their way and sometimes to attain their excellence. If I had never seen any of the works of Correggio, I should never, perhaps, have remarked in nature the expression which I find in one of his pieces: or if I had remarked it, I might have thought it too difficult, or perhaps impossible to be executed.”
In the summer of 1776, Northcote informed Sir Joshua of his intention of visiting Italy, to confirm his own notions of excellence by studying in the Vatican. This communication, which deprived him of a profitable assistant, was received with much complacency; he was sensible of the advantages obtained from his pupil's pencil, and said so with much freedom and kindness. “Remember," said the master, to his departing friend, " that something more must be done than that which did formerly-Kneller, Lely, and Hudson, will not do now.” He seldom omitted an opportunity of insulting the memories of Kneller and Lely. He might have spared them now that the world admitted him to have excelled them.
He was skilful in compliments. When he painted the portrait of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, he wrought his name on the border of her robe. The great actress conceiving it to be a piece of classic embroidery, went near to examine, and seeing the words, smiled. The artist bowed and said, “I could not lose this opportunity of sending my name to posterity on the hem of your garment.” He painted his name, in the same manner, on the embroidered edge of the drapery of Lady Cockburn's portrait When this picture was taken into the exhibition room, such was the sweetness of the conception, and the splendour of the colouring, that the painters who were busied with their own performances, acknowledged its beauty by clapping
their hands. Such eager admiration is of rare occurrence among brothers of the trade.
The tardy praise which he wrung from artists was amply compensated by that of others. The surly applause of Johnson, and the implied admiration of Goldsmith, were nothing compared to the open and avowed approbation of Burke. That extraordinary man possessed a natural sagacity, which opened the door of every mystery in art or literature; his praise is always warm, but well placed: he feels wisely and thinks in the true spirit. His debt of gratitude to Sir Joshua was never liquidated by affected rapture. The artist had reason to be proud of the affection of Burke. He sometimes asked his opinion on the merit of a work-it was given readily-Sir Joshua would then shake his head and say, “ Well, it pleases you; but it does not please me; there is a sweetness wanting in the expression which a little pains will bestow-there! I have improved it.” This, when translated into the common language of life, means, “I must not let this man think that he is as wise as myself; but show him that I can reach one step at least higher than his admiration.”
That Reynolds was a close observer of nature, his works sufficiently show; he drew his excellence from innumerable sources; paid attention to all opinions; from the rudest minds he sometimes obtained valuable hints, and babes and sucklings were among his tutors. It was one of his maxims that the gestures of children, being all dictated by nature, are graceful; and that affectation and distortion come in with the dancing-master. He watched the motions of the children who came to his gallery, and was pleased when he saw them forget themselves and mimic unconsciously the airs and attitudes of the portraits on the wall. They were to him more than Raphael had ever been. “I cannot but think,” he thus expresses himself in one of his memorandums, “that Apelles's method of