« ZurückWeiter »
nenger "is a young man of great simplicity and candour; sedate in his affections, scrupulous in forming private friendships, good from principle, and pure from a sense of the beauty of virtue." Forty years' intercourse, we might almost say friendship, confirmed to the painter the accuracy of these words.
The King received West with easy frankness, assisted him to place the Agrippina in a favourable light, removed the attendants, and brought in the Queen, to whom he presented our Quaker. He related to her Majesty the history of the picture, and bade her notice the simplicity of the design and the beauty of the colouring. "There is another noble Roman subject," observed his Majesty, " the departure of Regulus from Rome—would it not make a fine picture?" "It is a magnificent subject," said the painter. "Then," said the King, "you shall paint it for me." He turned with a smile to the Queen, and said, "The Archbishop made one of his sons read Tacitus to Mr. West, but I will read Livy to him myself—that part where he describe.8 the departure of Regulus." So saying, he read the passage very gracefully, and then repeated his command that the picture should be painted.
West was too prudent not to wish to retain the Sovereign's good opinion—and his modesty and his merit deserved it. The palace doors now seemed to open of their own accord, and the domestics attended with an obedient start to the wishes of him whom the King delighted to honour. There are minor matters which sometimes help a man on to fame; and in these too he had his share; West was a skilful skater, and in America had formed an acquaintance on the ice with Colonel, afterward too well known in the colonial war as General, Howe; this friendship had dissolved with the thaw, and was forgotten, till one day the painter, having tied on his skates at the Serpentine, was astonishing the timid practitioners of London by the rapidity of his motions and the graceful figure which he cut. Some one cried " West! West!" it was Colonel Howe. "I am glad to see you," said be, "and not the less so that you come in good time to vindicate my praises of American skating." He called to him Lord Spencer Hamilton and some of the Cavendishes, to whom he introduced West as one of the Philadelphia prodigies, and requested him to show them what was called "The Salute." He performed this feat so much to their satisfaction, that they went away spreading the praises of the American skater over London. Nor was the considerate Quaker insensible to the value of such commendations; he continued to frequent the Serpentine and to gratify large crowds by cutting the Philadelphia Salute. Many to their praise of his skating added panegyrics on his professional skill, and not a few, to vindicate their applause, followed him to his easel, and sat for their portraits.
While West was painting the Departure of Regulus, the present Royal Academy was planned. The Society of Incorporated Artists, of which he was a member, had grown rich by yearly exhibitions, and how to lay out this money became the subject of vehement debate. The architects were for a house, the sculptors for statues, and the painters proposed a large gallery for historical works, while a mean and sordid member or two voted to let it lie and grow more, for it was pleasant to see riches accumulate. West, who happened to be a director, approved of none of these notioas, and with Reynolds withdrew from the association. The newspapers of the day noticed these indecent bickerings, and the King, learning the cause from the lips of West, declared that he was ready to patronise any association formed on principles calculated to advance the interests of art. A plan was proposed by some of the dissenters, and submitted to his Majesty, who corrected it, and drew up some additional articles with his own hand.
Meanwhile, the Incorporated Artists continued their debates, in total ignorance that their dissenting brethren were laying the foundation of a surer structure than their own. Kirby, teacher of perspective to the King, had been chosen President: but so secretly was all managed, that he had never heard a whisper in the palace concerning the new academy, and in his inaugural address from the chair, he assured his companions that his Majesty would not countenance the schismatics. While West was one day busy with his Regulus, the King and Queen looking on, Kirby was announced, and his Majesty, having consulted his consort in German, admitted him, and introduced him to West, to whose person he was a stranger. He looked at the picture, praised it warmly, and congratulated the artist; then, turning to the King, said," Your Majesty never mentioned any thing of this work to me; who made the frame? it is not made by one of your Majesty's workmen; it ought to have been made by the royal carver and gilder." To this impertinence the King answered, with great calmness, "Kirby, whenever you are able to paint me such a picture as this, your friend shall make the frame." "I hope, Mr. West," said Kirby," that you intend to exhibit this picture J" "It is painted for the palace," said West,'.' and its exhibition must depend upon his Majesty's pleasure.' w Assuredly," said the King, " I shall be very happy to let the work be shown to the public." "Then, Mr. West," said Kirby, " you will send it to my exhibition." "No!" interrupted his Majesty," it must go to my exhibition—to that of the Royal Academy." The President of the Associated Artists bowed with much humility and retired. He did not long survive this mortification, and his death was imputed by the founders of the new academy to jealousy of their rising establishment, but by those who knew him well, to a more ordinary cause, the decay of nature. The Royal Academy was founded, and in its first exhibition appeared the Regulus.
A change was now to be effected in the character of British art; hitherto historical painting had appeared in a masking habit: the actions of Englishmen seemed all to have been performed, if costume were to be believed, by Greeks or by Romans. West dismissed at once this pedantry, and restored nature and propriety in his noble work of "The Death of Wolfe." The multitude acknowledged its excellence at once. The lovers of old art, the manufacturers of compositions called by courtesy classical, complained of the barbarism of boots, and buttons, and blunderbusses, and cried out for naked warriors, with bows, bucklers, and battering rams. Lord Grosvenor, disregarding the frowns of the amateurs, and the, at best, cold approbation of the Academy, purchased this work, which, in spite of laced coats and cocked hats, is one of the best of our historical pictures. The Indian warrior, watching the dying hero, to see if he equalled in fortitude the children of the deserts, is a fine stroke of nature and poetry.
The King questioned West concerning the picture, and put him on his defence of this new heresy in art. To the curiosity of Galt we owe the sensible answer of West:—"When it was understood," said the artist, "that T intended to paint the characters as they had actually appeared on the scene, the Archbishop of York called on Reynolds, and asked his opinion they both came to my house to dissuade me from running so great a risk. Reynolds began a very ingenious and elegant dissertation on the state of the public taste in this country, and the danger which every innovation incurred of contempt and ridicule, and concluded by urging me earnestly to adopt the costume of antiquity, as more becoming the great • ness of my subject than the modern garb of European warriors. 'I answered, that the event to he commemorated happened in the year 1758, in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no warriors who wore such costume existed. The subject I have to represent is a great battle fought and won, and the same truth which gives law to the historian should rule the painter. If instead of the facts of the action I introduce fictions, how shall I be understood by posterity? The classic dress is certainly picturesque, but by using it I shall lose in sentiment what I gain in external grace. I want to mark the place, the time, and the people, and to do this I must abide by truth. They went away then, and returned again when I had the painting finished. Reynolds seated himself before the picture, examined it with deep and minute attention for half an hour; then rising, said to Drummond,' West has conquered; he has treated his subject as it ought to be treated; I retract my objections. I foresee that this picture will not only become one of the most popular, but will occasion a revolution in art.'" "I wish," said the King, "that I had known all this before, for the objection has been the means of Lord Grosvenor's getting the picture, but you shall make a copy for me."
West had now obtained the personal confidence of the King and the favour of the public; his commis'sions were numerous, but of course the works for the palace had precedence. His Majesty employed - him to paint the death of Epaminondas, as a com'panion to that of Wolfe, the death of the Chevalier Bayard, Cyrus liberating the family of the King of Armenia, and Segestus and his daughter brought before Germanicus. The air of the palace had some influence on the mind of the prudent Quaker. The great Leibnitz had pointed out the descendants of Segestus in our own royal line, and West communicated a little of the lineaments of the living to the images of the dead. The good King was much pleased with the work.