Abbildungen der Seite

bered." "Had Mr. Opie turned his powers of mind," says Sir James Mackintosh, "to the study of philosophy, he would have been one of the first philosophers of the age. I was never more struck than with his original manner of thinking and expressing himself in conversation; and had he written on the subject, he would, perhaps, have thrown more light on the philosophy of his art than any man living.' "He aimed at no competition with the learned,' says Amelia Opie, "while with a manly simplicity which neither feared contempt nor courted applause, he has often, even in such company, made observations originating in the native treasures of his own mind, which learning could not teach, and which learning alone could not enable its possessor to appreciate."

At the period of his first appearance there was considerable encouragement for works of an historic nature; West, Barry, Fuseli, and, occasionally, Reynolds, produced such—with more or less of success and applause. That this high feeling has now greatly subsided in England there can be little doubt; even during the lifetime of Opie, commissions, as they are called, for such pictures, were becoming more and more rare; and now, alas!—it is sufficient to mention two of the more striking instances — the "Satan" of Lawrence, and the "Fall of Nineveh" of Martin, remain in their studies. Opie, anxious for fame, and yet resolved to live, did well then in dividing his pencil between portraiture and history.

His chief excellence lies in the former; there he has great breadth, vigour, and natural force of character—touched, it must be allowed, in some mstances, with a certain air of village audacity, which comes from the artist rather than from the sitter. His old men's heads, half fancy and half portrait, are deficient in carefulness of finish; but this is nore than compensated by that rough and happy energy with which they are dashed out. They furnish no comparisons—such as critics love to make—with the works of Velasquez, or Vandyke, or Reynolds; they have a hetter claim to distinction —they are truly original productions. His portrait of Charles Fox has been justly commended, nor does the circumstance of his having completed the likeness from the bust by Nollekens, as related by Smith, diminish his merit. When Fox, who sat opposite to Opie at the Academy dinner given in the exhibition-room, heard the general applause which his portrait obtained, he remembered that he had given him less of his time than the painter had requested, and said across the table, "There, Mr. Opie, you see I was right; every body thinks it could not be better. Now, if I had minded you, and consented to sit again, you most probably would have spoiled the picture." While this far-famed portrait was in progress, Opie became alarmed for his success: he was distracted by a multitude of hints which friends who came in swarms dropped, regarding the expression, the posture, and the handling. Fox was amused with the variety of opinions, and kindly whispered to Opie, "do n't mind what these people say—you must know better than they do."

The ladies who sat for their portraits he found more difficult to deal with than the great leader of the Whigs. There was at first a want of grace and oftness in his female heads—he felt this early, and aboured to amend it'—but it is said, that he did not wholly succeed till his second marriage. "Opie," aid one of his brethren, when he exhibited some female portraits soon after that event, "we never saw any thing like this in you before—this must be owing to your wife:" and it is likely that the compliment, though paid perhaps in jestt was nevertheless just. The habitual ruggedness of his personal manners yielded to the winning and graceful tact of Amelia Opie. and it is easy to believe that her presence might have the same influence upon his pencil. The words in which she vindicates her husband from the charge of speaking his,miud coarsely, and a desire to appear a grand natural character, are well worth transcribing.

"Of all employments portrait painting is perhaps the most painful and trying to a man of pride and sensibility, and the most irritating to an irritable man. To hear beauties and merits in a portrait often stigmatized as deformities and blemishes—to have high lights taken for white spots, and dark effective shadows for the dirty appearance of a snuff-taker :— to witness discontent in the by-standers, because the painting does not exhibit the sweet smile of the sitter, though it is certain that a smile on canvass looks like the grin of idiocy; while a laughing eye, if the artist attempts to copy it, as unavoidably assumes the disgusting resemblance of progressive intoxication. Sitters themselves Mr. Opie rarely found troublesome; but persons of worship, as he called them, that is, persons of great consequence, either from talent, rank, or widely spreading connexions, are sometimes attended by others whose aim is to endeavour to please the great man or woman by flattery wholly at the expense of the poor artist; and to minister sweet food to the palate of the patron, regardless though it be wormwood to that of the painter. Hence arises an eulogy on the beauties and perfections of the person painted, and regrets that they are so inadequately rendered by the person painting; while frivolous objection succeeds to frivolous objection, and impossibilities are expected and required as if they were possibilities. I have too frequently witnessed this, and my temper and patience have often been on the point of deserting me, even when Mr. Opie's had not apparently undergone the" slightest alteration—a strong proof that he possessed some of that self-command which is one of the requisites of good breeding."

He experienced no such difficulties in his historical compositions—the heroes or the beauties of other days had no friends to be fastidious about their merry eyes or their smiling lips, and he could exchange dark ringlets for tresses of gold, and distribute glowing complexions according to his own will and pleasure. He had, however, an equally painful battle to sustain with the men of taste and virtu, whose heads were crammed with the remembrance of the principal works of the great masters of Italy—men who had ridden post-haste through the continent, and returned with the incurable belief that every thing old was excellent—every thing new poor and degenerate. Originality was looked upon as something strange and outre—to trust to the strength of nature was weakness—to work so that the spirit and effect could be justified by reference to Rembrandt or Raphael, was to possess true taste, and to be imbued with the spirit of the great masters. Opie, it must be admitted, wanted poetic power to enable him to rise to the first eminence as an historical painter—but he had a sense of propriety of action and vigour of character which these connoisseurs wanted nerve to feel, and which have stamped no light value on many of his historical productions.

Those which have caught public fancy most are the Murder of James the First, of Scotland; the Presentation in the Temple; Jephthah's Vow; the Death of David Rizzio; Young Arthur taken Prisoner; Arthur with Hubert; Belisarius; Juliet in the Garden; and the Escape of Gil Bias and Musidora. Many others might be named, and many more praised; for he conceived without much delay, and executed with great readiness. He had no air-drawn visions of beauty before him which his pencil loved to follow; he sketched in his group, sought living nature to help him out with what was not in his mind's eye, and, bending his subject to his

Vol. II.—P

model rather than elevating the model to suit the subject, enslaved himself to the literal flesh and blood which he copied. "He painted what he saw," says West, "in the most masterly manner, and he varied little from it. He saw nature in one point more distinctly and forcibly than any painter that ever lived. The truth of colour, as conveyed to the eye through the atmosphere, by which the distance of every object is ascertained, was nevei better expressed than by him. He distinctly represented local colour in all its various tones and proportions, whether in light or in shadow, with a perfect uniformity of imitation. Other painters frequently make two separate colours of objects in light and in shade,—Opie never. With him no colour—whether white, black, primary, or compound—ever, in any situation, lost its respective hue."

His works were not the offspring of random fits of labour, after long indulgence in idleness; they were the well-considered progeny of his mind and hand—the fruit of daily toil, in which every hour had its allotted task. He sketched out a plan of weekly study, from which pleasure or persuasion seldom wiled him. "He was always in his painting-room," says Amelia Opie, "by half-past eight in winter, and by eight o'clock in summer; and there he generally remained, closely engaged in painting, till half-past four in winter, and till five in summer. Nor did he ever allow himself to be idle when he had no pictures bespoken; and as he never let his execution rust for want of practice, he, in that ease, either sketched out designs for historical or fancy pictures, or endeavoured, by working on an, unfinished picture of me, to improve himself by in-' cessant practice in that difficult branch of art, female portraiture. Neither did he suffer his exertions to be paralyzed by neglect the most unexpected, and disappointment the most undeserved."

""he world looks only at the brilliant result of an

« ZurückWeiter »