ON the long wall in this same Gallery 50 we find the few examples of the English school, all acquired within the last twenty years. They are portraits, except one, a landscape by Richard Wilson.
The first artist is Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the head of that eighteenth century portrait school which has made English art famous. One of his many self-portraits — for Sir Joshua loved to paint himself is commonplace and rather muddy, but ” Mrs. Boone and her Daughter ” is a portrait in his best style with that typical charm which he conveys in his large canvases. His “Kitty Fisher as Danae ” has an attempt at lightsomeness which never suits the somewhat ponderous hand of the old President R. A. Although Reynolds took all his good qualities in painting from Italy and Holland, he had at the same time a faculty of welding these in an individual way, so that his work always speaks for itself. Without arousing enthusiasm he is thoroughly convincing with the truthful manner by which his portraits impress us. Reynolds was by no means as great an artist as Hogarth, Gainsborough, Constable, or Turner, but still he was one of the greatest, despite his apparent ignorance or carelessness in the use of pigments, which to many inferior painters is rudimentary knowledge. As the first real portrait painter of the English his portraits assume the rank of history. His portraits of men are distinguished by dignity and character, those of women and children by a grace, a beauty and simplicity which have seldom been equalled. He lacks poignancy, but has a broad and happy generalization that always produces an agreeable sensation.
A portrait of ” Mrs. John Wilkinson ” (1638) is by Sir Joshua’s great rival, Thomas Gains-borough (1727-1788). The two were widely differing characters. Reynolds was diligent, orderly, methodical and guided by prudence and sagacity ; Gainsborough was careless, incautious, often brusque, whimsical, but still a bright and lovable man. It is easy then to define their distinction in art. Sir Joshua’s work is cogitated, determined beforehand, decisive; Gainsborough’s is more improvised, but carried out with a perfect harmony of genius, labour, and developed skill. For as a mere painter a transmuter of a paletteful of pigments into light and air, into glowing human flesh and waving trees — he has no superior. There are three portraits of Mrs. Robinson in the Wallace Collection, London, by Sir Joshua, by Gainsborough, and by Romney. The Reynolds and the Romney are perhaps better portraits, better likenesses, but one will more readily forget these two, and remember the haunting, thoughtful face by Gainsborough, with its beautiful feathery touch and fascinating refinement. The Mrs. Wilkinson has the same abiding impressiveness in its brilliant harmony of effect.
George Romney (1734-1802) was sometimes almost equal to Reynolds and Gainsborough in masterful portrayal of femininity, for men’s portraits interested him little. His ” Portrait of a Lady ” here has winsomeness and charm of colour. One of his few man’s portraits is also here, and is unusually strong. Few painters have been more essentially artistic than Romney, He had an acute perception and emotional sympathy for what was graceful, elegant, and beautiful, whereby his pictorial presentation becomes intensely fascinating and pleasing. He lacked the depth and intellectual energy of the learned Reynolds, the keen sensibility and magnificent colour of Gainsborough, but he had an adorable delicacy and delicious magic which gave him high rank in the British portrait school.
No wonder that the cry was : ” Romney and Reynolds divide the town,” and although the great painter of Leicester Square affected to despise the work of ” the man in Cavendish Square,” the rival factions were very evenly divided.
The great Scotchman, Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), who is becoming more and more appreciated, has a life-size, full-length portrait of a man, in vigorous style and ruddy colour. Rae-burn’s method of painting was to be absolutely true to nature, and although he possessed ideality he never idealized in the sense of exaltation to imagined perfection. The simplicity and honesty of his treatment together with the boldness and freedom of his brushwork resulted in a rare combination of felicity of likeness and strength of character in the many masterful portraits he has produced. He never falls into the weakness, oft insipidity, to which the later men of the English portrait school frequently descend.
A notable example of this decadent spirit was Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), whose portrait of Mrs. Williams Linley has none of the salient virility and energy which characterizes Raeburn’s work. His palpable imitation of van Dyck with his aristocratic gentility makes him a favourite with the Philistine, whose taste always runs towards the pretty, and who, when viewing a glorious sunset in nature, will call it ” very artistic, indeed.”
The early landscape painter Richard Wilson (1713-1782) has here a landscape in his exact, even finnicky style. With all his love for nature Wilson rarely grasped its supreme spiritual beauty, but he sought in realistic portrayal of leaf and tree trunk to gain a realism which does not satisfy. It lacks the breath of moisture, the enveloping atmosphere, the play of light, the cumbersome vitality of plodding kind. It is hard, dry, glaring. Not until half a century after him did English landscape art assert itself with the coming of Old Crome and the Norwich School, to be brought to its supreme expression in the work of Constable.
Herewith we have completed half of the upper floor, and we will now retrace our steps through the north wing to the entrance. The south wing contains the Dutch, Flemish and German schools. To view the paintings there systematically and without passing from one to the other room and then returning to the first, I suggest that we first visit the section of German sculpture in the right wing of the lower floor where we find the German Primitives and continue our discussion of the German school by visiting on the upper floor Room 67 where the works of Dürer and Holbein are found, and Rooms 65 and 66 which contain the German paintings of the sixteenth century. Then, after completing the German school, we may review the remainder of the south side of the upper floor, and devote ourselves to the Dutch and Flemish paintings.