« AnteriorContinuar »
flesh colour, which can indeed only be avoided by extreme delicacy or extreme lightness of
Shall I speak the truth at once? opinion, Sir Joshua did not possess either that high imagination, or those strong feelings, without which no painter can become a poet in his art. His larger historical compositions have been generally allowed to be most liable to objection in a critical point of view. I shall not attempt to judge them by scientific or technical rules, but make one or two observations on the character and feeling displayed in them. The highest subject which Sir Joshua has attempted was the Count Ugolino, and it was, as might be expected from the circumstances, a total failure. He had, it seems, painted a study of an old beggar-man's head; and some person, who must have known as little of painting as of poetry, persuaded the unsuspecting artist that it was the exact expression of Dante's Count Ugolino, one of the most grand, terrific, and appalling characters in modern fiction. Reynolds, who knew nothing of the matter but what he was told, took his good fortune for granted, and only extended his canvass to admit the rest of the figures. The attitude and expression of Count Ugolino himself are what the artist
intended them to be, till they were pampered into something else by the officious vanity of friends, those of a common mendicant at the corner of a street, waiting patiently for some charitable donation. The imagination of the painter took refuge in a parish workhouse, instead of ascending the steps of the Tower of Famine. The hero of Dante is a lofty, highminded, and unprincipled Italian nobleman, who had betrayed his country to the enemy, and who, as a punishment for his crime, is shut up with his four sons in the dungeon of the citadel, where he shortly finds the doors barred upon him, and food withheld. He in vain watches with eager feverish eye the opening of the door at the accustomed hour, and his looks turn to stone; his children one by one drop down dead at his feet; he is seized with blindness, and, in the agony of his despair, he gropes on his knees after them,
"Calling each by name
For three days after they were dead."
Even in the other world he is represented with the same fierce, dauntless, unrelenting character, " gnawing the skull of his adversary, his fell repast." The subject of the Laocoon is scarcely equal to that described by Dante.
The horror there is physical and momentary ; in the other, the imagination fills up the long, obscure, dreary void of despair, and joins its unutterable pangs to the loud cries of nature. What is there in the picture to convey the ghastly horrors of the scene, or the mighty energy of soul with which they are borne? His picture of Macbeth is full of wild and grotesque images; and the apparatus of the Witches contains a very elaborate and well arranged inventory of dreadful objects. His Cardinal Beaufort is a fine display of rich, mellow colouring; and there is something gentlemanly and Shakespearian in the King and the Attendant Nobleman. At the same time, I think the expression of the Cardinal himself is too much one of physical horror, a canine gnashing of the teeth, like a man strangled. This is not the best style of history. Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse is neither the Tragic Muse nor Mrs Siddons; and I have still stronger objections to Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy.
There is a striking similarity between Sir Joshua Reynolds' theory and his practice; and as each of these has been appealed to in support of the other, it is necessary that I should examine both. Sir Joshua's practice was generally confined to the illustration of that part of his
theory which relates to the more immediate imitation of nature; and it is to what he says on this subject that I shall chiefly direct my observations at present.
He lays it down as a general and invariable rule, that "the great style in art, and the most PERFECT IMITATION OF NATURE, consists in avoiding the details and peculiarities of particular objects." This sweeping principle he applies almost indiscriminately to portrait, history, and landscape; and he appears to have been led to the conclusion itself, from supposing the imitation of particulars to be inconsistent with general rule and effect. It appears to me that the highest perfection of the art depends, not on separating, but on uniting general truth and effect with individual distinctness and accuracy.
First, It is said that the great style in painting, as it relates to the immediate imitation of external nature, consists in avoiding the details of particular objects. It consists neither in giving nor avoiding them, but in something quite different from both. Any one may avoid the details. So far there is no difference between the Cartoons and a common sign painting. Greatness consists in giving the larger masses and proportions with truth;-this does
not prevent giving the smaller ones too. The utmost grandeur of outline, and the broadest masses of light and shade are perfectly compatible with the utmost minuteness and delicacy of detail, as may be seen in nature. It is not, indeed, common to see both qualities combined in the imitations of nature, any more than the combinations of other excellences; nor am I here saying to which the principal attention of the artist should be directed; but I deny that, considered in themselves, the absence of the one quality is necessary or sufficient to the production of the other.
If, for example, the form of the eye-brow is correctly given, it will be perfectly indifferent to the truth or grandeur of the design, whether it consists of one broad mark, or is composed of a number of hair-lines arranged in the same order. So, if the lights and shades are disposed in fine and large masses, the breadth of the picture, as it is called, cannot possibly be affected by the filling up of these masses with the details; that is, with the subordinate distinctions which appear in nature. in nature. The anatomical details in Michael Angelo, the ever-varying outline of Raphael, the perfect execution of the Greek statues, do not destroy their symmetry or dignity of form; and in the finest specimens