Among the various causes which have contributed to the deficiency in works of high artistical merit in this country, one of the first and most influential must be considered to be the want of adequate patronage of painting and sculpture, that is said to have been peculiarly experienced in England, while that branch only of these arts which consists in the production of portraits and of busts and statues of real persons has been encouraged ; not, indeed, from any love of art, but because it has ministered to our social and domestic feelings, or has contributed to gratify family or personal vanity. The existence of this deficiency or limitation of patronage cannot be denied, and has been peculiarly characteristic of this country, as I have already observed in the preceding chapter when speaking of the present condition of the arts in England. This, in its turn, must be owing to various causes. As regards painting, the number of works of the old masters, and the still greater number of supposed works, of themselves supply the artistical market, and at any rate take precedence of those of our own age, especially as regards the productions of living artists whose fame has not yet been established. The vast multitude of purchasers of works of art, who consist, not of those of most genius and discernment, but of those of most wealth, are so from fashion more than from taste ; and are, therefore, induced to prefer having their mansions decorated with paintings by those whose names sound high as artists of celebrity.
The mercantile spirit of the nation seems, indeed, to pervade all ranks and classes, and to bias their conduct in matters apparently the most remote from its influence. Thus, the purchase and possession of works of art is looked upon as a mere pecuniary adventure. They are selected mainly as an investment, a sort of refined and ornamental mode of laying out superfluous capital ; consequently, it is not so much works of merit as works of value that are sought out. The productions of living artists, however excellent they may be, are disregarded, because they have not as yet reached their ultimate sterling market value, and are liable to depreciation by the production of better works from the same artist. On the other hand, the works of the old masters have always attached to them a specific amount of value, and are never liable to deteriorate from the same cause which may affect the former. Their worth, in fact, depends in most cases, not on their intrinsic merit but on the proofs of their genuineness.
The deficiency of compositions at the present day as regards striking intellectual merit, by which the world at large must judge of works of art, is another cause of the want of patronage of painting. Indeed, where performances have been produced, which from their sterling excellence have attracted general admiration among those capacitated to estimate such qualities,although they may not have been of the highest rank in this respect,they have not failed, even in these days, to meet with liberal patronage. As a composition of this nature is intended to excite the admiration of all, it should doubtless be so capacitated, and ought not to require every person who views it to understand the mechanical subtleties of art, in order to discover its value ; any more than to perceive the beauties of a poem an oration or an oratorio, it is necessary for him who admires it that he should be skilled in the art of versification, of eloquence, or of music.
But the most extensive and direct cause of the want of patronage of works of art in England, is the poverty of the nation, occasioned by our immense national debt, and the many taxes to which we are in consequence subjected. For, although we are accounted the richest nation in Europe, yet, as is often the case with those who have large incomes, our customary and, indeed, almost necessary expenses are equally great in pro-portion, leaving but little for luxuries, of which the patron-age of painting, and the possession of choice works of art is accounted one of the most dispensable, delightful as it may be deemed. Such, indeed, has been our national penury in regard to matters of art, that the most lavish expenditure which has ever been conceived for the promotion of the arts in England, falls far below what was actually freely voted for the same noble purposes in Athens. The fact of this want of patronage being established, it does not require much skill to point out in what way it operates to retard the progress of the higher branches of the arts among us. Hence it is that men of genius and of really great power, are drawn off from the pursuit of art to others which are more profitable, and more certain of rendering a return for their skill and labour. Not improbably also the extensive advancement of the sciences to which I have before referred, and the patronage which has been bestowed on poetry and eloquence and music, have had considerable influence indirectly in retarding painting and sculpture, as men of high acequirements and extensive talent have been induced to adopt those professions where ample rewards are offered to their followers; while painting and sculpture, from want of a fair amount of remuneration to their professors, have been left to men of inferior minds who were allured to them mainly from the prospect of no formidable rivalry appearing there. Hence also it is that we have had so many who have been eminent as poets and for their eloquence, who might, had they devoted themselves to epic compositions in painting, have rivalled the great masters of old, and produced the most sublime and grand works. Shakespeare and Milton, and Burke and Macaulay, might each of them, no doubt, have attained high eminence had they devoted themselves to epic composition in painting or sculpture. The mechanical part of the arts is always to be acquired; it is in mind chiefly that the efforts of our modern artists in historical composition have been deficient.
Indeed, we may be the more convinced that there is in this country the capacity to produce works of high intellectual vigour, such as characterized the schools of ages gone by, from the occasional productions of this class which are frequently to be met with in engravings and etchings and woodcuts, combined with the manual dexterity and skill exhibited by some of our artists in their finished paintings. All that is actually required is such an amount of patronage as will induce persons gifted with the double capacity of designing and executing really great paintings, to devote their full energies and time to this noble undertaking. As it is, men of genius who can design meritorious works, find no encouragement to complete them ; and those who could produce perfect productions of this class, are induced to execute only performances of a trivial character.
So powerful, nevertheless, has been the effect of this want of patronage, or the belief of its existence, that even artists by profession who have been gifted with powers for excelling in the loftier department, have almost confined themselves to portrait painting, as in the case of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and also of Holbein and Vandyke, whose minds were imbued with the highest principles of the art, and executed their performances with a great degree of manual skill rivalling that of the ancients. Both Holbein and Vandyke, however, although they had previously practised historical composition, when they came to England degenerated into mere portrait painters.
Sculpture, like painting, has been patronized only so far as it served to gratify family vanity or affection. Perhaps, while the latter art owes most to the living, the former has been best befriended by the dead.
Music poetry and eloquence have fared better. The first has been more liberally patronized, because it, has contributed to afford amusement and recreation to the greatest number. But, notwithstanding this fact, except in a very few instances, the professional income derived from this art has been but inconsiderable; and, indeed, the composition of new original great works here is very rare. Poetry has been more independent of patronage, because it is an art which may be followed with other pursuits, and does not require the person engaging in it to devote himself to it as a sole occupation, as in the case of a painter. Eloquence, although not of the highest order, has fared the best of all, because it has been largely patronized, it being the surest aid to preferment in the senate, the pulpit, and at the bar.
Architecture must be entirely dependent on the patronage which is extended to those who adopt it as a profession, as without patronage even practice is not afforded to the followers of this art, as in the case of those of painting sculpture and poetry; inasmuch as the works on which it is employed are of such magnitude that no private individual can undertake them. No architect could, of himself, venture to build cathedrals and churches and public edifices for the mere purpose of proving his skill, as a painter or sculptor or poet occupies himself in his pursuit. On the other hand, the architect has one great advantage in this respect over the followers of other branches of art, in that he has the opportunity of evincing his taste and genius by the production, at a very trifling cost, of designs for architectural edifices, in which may be exhibited all the mental power and originality which the building itself could display.
In the erection of prisons, barracks, courts of justice, and other large public edifices on which great cost has been be-stowed, it would surely have been more creditable to our taste had due regard been paid to architectural propriety, so as to render them ornaments instead of huge disfigurements to the neighbourhood in which they stand. Had this been attended to, ample patronage would have been afforded to architecture. In the structure of commercial buildings, beauty and ornament ought ever to be combined with use : they should not be al-lowed to stand as mere monuments of avarice, not only with respect to their object, but the style of their construction. So also in the formation of warehouses and railroad-buildings, taste as well as utility should ever be regarded.
As war and commerce are in their nature, in many ways, inimical to the ultimate progress and highest perfection of art and civilization; so in a corresponding manner, the modern edifices erected for the carrying on of these undertakings, appear in their style and general form to be utterly at variance with all the rules and principles of art. How greatly, indeed, do works of science in the foregoing respect ordinarily contrast with those of nature, where the streams which water the land, and waft its traffic inland from one town to another, instead of defacing, adorn and beautify the country through which they flow.
Deficiency in the patronage of dramatic acting is doubtless one great cause why it has not taken a higher position in this country ; as unless it offers an adequate reward to those who follow it as a profession, men of the highest talent cannot be expected to devote themselves to this pursuit. There are, in-deed, many individuals in other professions, as the bar and the Church as also in the senate, who appear admirably adapted for the histrionic art, had they applied themselves to it, instead of following a calling which affords a more certain, and a more ample remuneration.
The want of patronage of the drama at the present day, analogous to that in the case of epic painting, must, on the other hand, to a large extent, be attributed to the want of really great and intellectual men of genius in this art, who can appeal to the feelings, and above all to the mind of their audience; and who can raise instead of diminishing their conceptions of the scenes represented in the tragedies which are per-formed. When such have appeared on the stage,as in the case of Garrick and Kemble and Macready,the patronage of them, if not adequate to their merits, has been sufficient to show how fully they were appreciated.
Costume receives, perhaps, about a proportional measure of patronage with the higher arts. While common and ordinary productions secure a large share of encouragement, and meet with a constant and ready sale ; really grand efforts obtain but small support, and inventive genius here is consequently at a low ebb. This art, too, like that of painting, suffers much from the preference given to foreign designs.
Gardening is so far independent of patronage, that its pursuit depends on its being followed by those who are the possessors of the ground to be laid out according to its principles, and who are generally among the highly educated and the affluent.
It may often happen, however, that the patronage bestowed on any art is not of a genuine legitimate kind as regards the art itself, which is after all not duly estimated or appreciated ; but the occupation only, or sustaining medium out of which the art sprang, is that which is really supported. Thus, among avowed connoisseurs, pictures are ordered or bought, not as works of art, but as the means of preserving the likeness of a friend, or as ornamental pieces of furniture. Sculpture is patronized not as an art, but as a means of establishing a monumental memento. At the bar it is not so much real eloquence, as skill in rhetoric which meets with patronage. And it is not taste in architecture or costume, but utility or display in a building or a dress which the multitude desire and encourage. The amount of legitimate genuine patronage of art in this, or perhaps any other country, is therefore, probably, very limited indeed.
The fact of art requiring patronage might be urged perhaps by some as a proof of its degeneracy, as it may be said that skill in efforts of genius ought, like virtue, to be its own reward. On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that painters, like other mortals, require to eat as well as to paint. They may indeed paint without patronage, but without patronage they cannot live. Genius undoubtedly may exist as much without encouragement as with it; but without it it will not be cultivated or flourish. It may, therefore, be deemed an indisputable axiom, that although patronage cannot produce meritorious works of art, the want of it must prevent their being produced. It is surely also chilling to art that while every other profession and pursuit brings to the followers of it comfort and competence, the artist starves ; and not impossibly the higher is his genius, the lighter will be his purse,as fewer will appreciate his merits. It not unfrequently indeed happens that when they are discovered, death has placed him beyond the reach of reward.
Patronage is, moreover, advantageous to art so far as it creates rivalry by raising up a number of competitors for the prizes offered, who stimulate each other. On the other hand, it is disadvantageous, as it encourages those who have no genius for art, to follow it for the sake not of itself, but of its prizes. It may also induce persons to follow not those pursuits for which they have most genius, but those which will bring them the most gain.
National patronage, of whatever art, is less likely to be fickle and erroneous than private patronage. That of individuals may be ignorant, and injudicious, and ill-directed, and thus injure instead of aiding art. To this all the arts alike are equally liable. State patronage, although not exempt from this failing, is less subject to it than is private patronage.
Northcote, indeed, goes so far as to assert that art has never prospered unless it has been patronized either by the Church or by the State. We may, however, question the fact as to whether in any case it has been literally patronized by either. On the other hand, in certain instances where this sort of patronage has been liberally extended, the success of art has been but very limited. Statesmen and priests have, indeed, individually patronized art ; but not so the institutions of which they were the representatives. Sovereigns and Popes have themselves encouraged artists ; but not so the Italian government, or the Papal Church. Raphael and Michael Angelo owed much to Leo X., but nothing to St. Peter’s. Rembrandt was under obligations to neither Church nor State for their patronage of him ; and yet he produced works in great abundance, and of extraordinary merit. In our day, portraits are painted both of Sovereigns and Prelates ; and yet this does not make either the State or the Church patrons of art. In-deed, the only arts, if any, which can be strictly asserted to have been patronized both by the Government and the Church in this country, are those of sculpture and architecture. But the first of these is in a condition very little, if at all, more flourishing than is painting. The other is mainly followed in the efforts to copy, or at most to resuscitate the inventions of past ages.