« ZurückWeiter »
artist's labour. We see a magnificent work, filled with divine shapes and glowing with the freshest hues of heaven and earth, and the idea never darkens in our fancy that he who created this prodigy is in dread of want, and perhaps even now knows not how he is to be fed to-morrow. "Though he had a picture in the Exhibition of 1801, which was universally admired, and purchased as soon as beheld"—I quote once more the words of his widow —" he saw himself at the end of that year and the beginning of the next almost wholly without employment; and even my sanguine temper yielding to the trial, I began to fear that, small as our ex. penditure was, it must become still smaller. Not that I allowed myself to own that I desponded; on the contrary, I was forced to talk to him of hopes and to bid him look forward to brighter prospects, as his temper, naturally desponding, required all the support imaginable. But gloomy and painful indeed were those three alarming months; and I consider them as the severest trial I experienced during my married life. Even despondence did not make him indolent; he continued to paint regularly as usual, and, no doubt, by that means increased his ability to do justice to the torrent of business which soon afterward set in towards him, and never ceased to flow till the day of his death."
There is no doubt that Opie incurred a debt of gratitude to Wolcot for his frank and friendly en couragement, when he was a menial in his house" in Cornwall, and for his anxious introduction of "the Cornish Wonder" to the novelty-gazers of Londoo. The poet often complained that the painter was ungrateful. He probably expected that when Opie had earned fame and name, he should still consider himself under the shadow of his patronage. I know not enough of the private history of the artist to decide, with certainty and exactness, in how far he was blameable for the coldness which took place between them, and anticipated the grave. The doctor was an odd and capricious man, who loved swearing better than satire, and united them both frequently to the injury of his best friends: it was no wonder therefore that Opie should shrink from his society, more especially if he still retained the airs of the master. Officious go-betweens carried to the artist the last satiric thing which the poet had uttered concerning him, and then returned to the satirist with the morose and surly observations of Opie. "What ails Wolcot at you?" said one of those persons—"once I thought he had been a friendly and kind-hearted man?" "Ay, ay," answered Opie, "in time you will know him." When the painter's works happened to be praised in Wolcot's presence, he always coupled very dexterously the present time with the past, and formed a background to his fame with the humility and darkness of his early life. With him who gave the first cause of offence the odium of this estrangement must abide, and I have, I own, some fears that it appertains to Opie.
For the loss of this early friend, the infidelity of his wife, and the fickleness of popular opinion, he sought a wise remedy—a woman worthy of his affection, who could sooth him in periods of depression, and, by her good sense and clear understanding, aid him in all his undertakings. He was thirtyseven years old, and that youthful fever which all feel was past and gone; he could now choose dis creetly. The merits of the lady are widely known —not through the genius of her husband, but her own; and all who have read her works must feel that she was worthy of wearing the name of Opie. To her pen we owe the little that has been publicly told concerning the private life and modes of study of her husband; and though we wish to know him more familiarly, we are not insensible to the delicacy of the task which she undertook. What other solours, save those that are rich and bright, could a wife use in drawing her husband's character? She expected, indeed, that an ampler memoir would be written by a bolder, and perhaps colder, hand; and might desire to leave to this biographer the ungentle task of adding the ruder touches and the darker shades. This has not been done; and from the garland which she hung over his hearse, I must take a few more flowers. I shall endeavour to do this with a respectful hand.
Opie was no impatient labourer for wealth, who desired to snatch his gains before his colours were dry on the canvass: he studied much, wrought incessantly, and was ill to please. "During the nine years that I was his wife," says Mrs. Opie, " I never saw him satisfied with any one of his productions; and often, very often, have I seen him enter my sitting-room, and, throwing himself in an agony of despondence on the sofa, exclaim, 'I am the most stupid of created beings, and I never, never shall be a painter as long as I live.' He used to study at Somerset House, when the pictures were hung up, with more persevering attention and thirst for improvement than was ever exhibited perhaps by the lowest student in the schools, and on his return I never heard him expatiate on his own excellences, but sorrowfully dwell on his own defects; while he often expressed to me his envy of certain powers in art which other painters were masters of, and which he feared he should never be able to obtain."
Thus quick to censure his own works, our painter was slow to commend those of his brethren. There is indeed a singular tardiness among artists in either praising or blaming one another: they seem to think that the whole world is waiting for their opinion, and that commendation will raise a brother above his level, and censure sink him below it. They deal out dark and diplomatic responses respecting each other's merits, and leave you to interpret their meaning. "Opie," says his wife, "was free from vanity—more particularly from that vanity which induces a man to believe that his wisdom is great. He was so slow to commend, and panegyric on the works of contemporary artists was so sparingly given by him, that it was natural for some persons to suppose him actuated by the feelings of professional jealousy; but it was more generous, and I am fully convinced more just, to think this sluggishness o praise was merely the result of such a high idea of excellence in his art as made him not easily satisfied with efforts to obtain it; and surely he who was never led by vanity or conceit to be contented with his own works, could not be expected to show great indulgence to the works of others." I know not what standard of excellence was present to the fancy of Opie; but if a man is to withhold his approbation from all works which fail to equal the best of the golden days of art, he may shut his mouth for ever.
He was exposed, as all men of eminence are, to the attacks of the envious and the malevolent. A speculator in biography, having handled one man of genius with sharp and vulgar severity, singled out Opie for his second victim, and so little did he keep his infamous purpose a secret, that it reached the ear of the artist. Opie, having perused some of his adversary's compositions, saw that the man mistook the venom of the arrow for the vigour of the bow: he only smiled, and said, " If this is all he can do, he is welcome to say any thing of me he likes. I shall neither menace him nor bribe him into silence." "For his fame, latterly, at least," says Mrs. Opie, "he was indebted to himself alone: by no puffs, no paragraphs, did he endeavour to obtain public notice; and I have heard him, with virtuous pride, declare that whether his reputation were great or small, it was self-derived, and he was indebted for it to no exertions save those of his own industry and talents. He might, like others, mistake sometimes weeds for flowers, and bring them home, and carefully preserve them as such; but the weeds were gathered by his own hands, and he had, at least, by his labour deserved that they should be valuable acquisitions."
His heart was with his art—other artists, as Northcote said, painted to live, but Opie lived to paint; and though he was dilatory about praising the works which his brethren produced with the brush, he was forward enough in admiring their attempts with the pen. "Whalever," said Mrs. Opie, "had a tendency to exalt painting and its professors in the eyes of the world, was a source of gratification to him. He used often to expatiate on the great classical attainments of Mr. Fuseh, whose wit he admired, and whose conversation he delighted in: but I have often thought that one cause of the pleasure which he derived from mentioning that gentleman's attainments, was his conviction, that the learning of Mr. Fuseli was an honour to his profession, and tended to exalt it in the opinion of society." Nor was his pleasure less in reading the Poem on Art, by Mr. Shee—a work which will be valued while knowledge, feeling, and elegance are in estimation.
An imaginary sum was floating incessantly before Opie's eyes, which his pencil was to accumulate. That golden speculation at length achieved, he intended to retire from art-^establish a gallery of good paintings, and a well-stocked library; and with his wife by his side, and all cares for a wellfilled easel given to the winds, enjoy life like one who knew it was short. As he was frugal and temperate, his expenses were small; and as he was a quick workman, his gains were large. He was too proud to incur debts, and not so vain as to give expensive entertainments to those who would probably have paid them with sarcasms. He was one