National Gallery – Reynolds And Gainsborough

SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS was the son of a clergy-man. He was born in Devonshire in 1723. He spent his study-hours while a child in sketching, calling down upon himself the condemnation of an outraged, though secretly proud, father. One of these drawings which remains, has upon the back of it the inscription : Done by Joshua out of pure idleness; ” but we must note that the drawing was carefully preserved, and probably the old parson, while feeling it his duty to admonish, yet appreciated his clever son. Reynolds was as popular and as lucky in his environment as poor Wilson was unfortunate. He was a pupil of Hudson, a painter of some reputation, of whose work a specimen may be seen in No. 1224.

Reynolds was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel when he was twenty-six, and thus was enabled to become familiar with the great masters of Italy. Venetian art attracted him more than any other. He used to recommend the study of the great masters even more than nature; in this he and Hogarth were diametrically opposed. He was always striving for what was known as the ” Venetian secret ” of colouring ; and even analyzed several old Italian paintings, in order to discover the trick which he believed that they employed.

” Consider the object’ before you more as made up of lights and shadows than of lines,” he used to say. His colours were terribly fleeting, even in his own lifetime. He realized his own shortcomings as to permanence, and said that he ” came off with flying colours.” Horace Walpole suggested that Sir Joshua ought to be paid for his pictures by annual instalments, — as long as they lasted ! He had a chance to change his methods in his later pictures, which are better preserved. Each picture was, to a certain extent, an experiment with him.

Above all things, he was free in his style of treatment, sometimes almost to the detriment of other qualities. There is no painter more variable than Reynolds; the difference between his best works and his least happy productions is unusually large.

Sir Joshua not only loaded his lights, which is a habit with most painters, but he loaded his shadows as well, and dark pigments will nearly always crack if they are laid too heavily, while the lights, being full of opaque colour, hold together better. Indeed, his technical methods make us sigh, for, by reason of his fleeting pigments, the world of art has lost much. He began on a fair white groundwork ; while this was still wet, he would sketch upon it a rapid suggestion of the portrait to be painted, using only lake and black with flake white. In the second sitting he would add Spanish yellow, and the fugitive lakes and carmines. He used only a brush of hair. Unfortunately, he employed numerous vehicles, oils, and varnishes, which have worked havoc with time to aid them. Even wax was introduced into some of his experiments. Blake composed a satire, which hinges upon the fugitive qualities of his portraits :

” When Sir Joshua Reynolds died all nature was degraded, The king dropped a tear into the queen’s ear, and all his pictures — faded ! ”

But in spite of these drawbacks he was the most popular painter in England. Sir George Beaumont advised a friend to have a portrait by Sir Joshua; being met with the usual objection, that Reynolds’s work was apt to fade, he replied : ” Never mind, — even a faded picture from Reynolds will be the finest thing you can have ! ”

At the founding of the academy in 1768, Reynolds was elected its first president, — a position which he held for the rest of his life. It was as president of the academy that he delivered his fa-mous ” Discourses on Art.” The first of the dis-courses was delivered to the academy in 1769. Each year following another was added. This artist is almost as celebrated for his ” Discourses ” as for his pictures. These admirable essays, still helpful as practical disquisitions on art subjects, are full of valuable instruction.

Reynolds was always glad of the criticism of people who knew nothing of the technique of his art, for they would more clearly voice the public impression of his work. When a man who knew nothing about art asked, ” Why is half the face black? ” Reynolds, instead of relegating him to the shades of the ignorant, felt at once convinced that the error was his own, and that his shadows were too heavy, no matter how many artists might rave over the depth of tone, and he would alter his work with the humility of a genuine lover of truth.

He was enraged at the commercial views of Doc-tor Tucker, who had announced that a pin-maker was of more use in the world than Raphael. ” It is as much as to say that the bricklayer is superior to the architect!” he cried, and complained that such a sentiment set the means higher than the end, as the object in attaining wealth in this world was that men might be fitted to enjoy higher things. Reynolds became king’s painter in 1784.

While painting one day, he suddenly felt the power of vision leave his left eye. This was in 1789; the beginning of the tragedy of his life was with this terrible revelation; in a few weeks his left eye was entirely blind, and the other almost so. No more pathetic figures can be imagined than the blind Sir Joshua and the deaf Beethoven. Reduced to the necessity of finding some solace for his time, the great artist ended by taming a little bird, which he used to take on his hand, and, walking up and down, talk to it as if it were a real friend.

Reynolds’s last appearance at the academy to de-liver a discourse was marked by an unwonted disturbance ; a beam in the floor broke, and the audience was in great danger. Lords, students, and academicians were in a state of inextricable en-tanglement. There was almost a panic among those present, all but Sir Joshua, who, benign and dignified in his advanced age, sat quietly until order was restored, and then resumed his lecture. The conclusion of this lecture was his famous tribute to Michelangelo. ” I should desire,” he said, ” that the last words I should pronounce in this academy might be the name of Michelangelo.” And he never spoke there again. In alluding to the accident to the building afterward, he remarked coolly that, if the floor had really fallen, every man in the room would have been killed, which would mean that art in Britain would have been put back two hundred years !

He was ill for a long time, but he bore the trial with splendid fortitude, never repining, and realizing from the first what the end must be. His re-signed cheerfulness was possible because of his life’s motto : ” The great secret of being happy in this world is not to mind or be affected by small things.” He died in 1792, and was honourably interred in the Crypt of St. Paul’s, London.

Sir Joshua used to say that study was too stern a word to apply to painting, — that it was too mechanical an art to be dignified by the term ” intellectual.” But this was only because he himself found it second nature to grasp ideals which cost most painters a lifetime of study and application. Ruskin considers him one of the seven supreme colourists in the world, and the prince of portrait-artists.

Perhaps the most ideal of his pictures in the National Gallery is the charming portrait group, called the Graces Decorating a Statue of Hymen, No. 79. In reality, this represents the three lovely daughters of Sir William Montgomery. The central nymph is the Hon. Mrs. Gardner, the figure on the left, the Marchioness of Townsend, and the third, Mrs. Beresford. These patricians are figured as the Three Graces, but they are no artless children of the grove; they are English aristocrats. These ladies, all having made satisfactory matches, were portrayed as offering their appreciation to the god of matrimony. Where many artists paint flesh firmly, and still life lightly, Sir Joshua paints his accessories with a firm hand, and treats flesh with a charming evanescent softness emphasizing its living and moving qualities. No Englishman before Reynolds had ventured to paint gay, cheerful landscapes as backgrounds for his portraits. This mythological flight of fancy, exquisite as it is, is inconsistent with Sir Joshua’s harsh criticism upon Wilson for painting classical figures in his Niobe without due excuse. He himself committed the anachronism of painting the two Grevilles as Cupid and Psyche, the Duchess of Manchester as Diana, Lady Blake as Juno, and Miss Norris as Hope. Reynolds seems to have felt that merely to portray nature was not enough ; he was fain to give some more dignified name to his works than that which by right belonged to them. For in-stance, No. 162, the Infant Samuel, is hardly treated as a historical subject; it is the simple picture of a little child saying his prayers, and the name is unconvincing and unnecessary. The two pictures, Nos. 106 and 107, are probably both studies from the head of a workman named White ; but one of them is denominated a Picture of Count Ugolino, whom all readers of Dante will remember for his hideous death by starvation in the Tower of Hunger in Pisa, while the other bears the title of the Banished Lord. Taine calls this ” a sentimental elegy after the manner of Young ! ” Both the heads are beautiful pieces of work, and, independent of their alleged subjects, are noble studies from life.

It was in portraiture that Sir Joshua’s genius was displayed at its best. Instead of copying every line photographically, he uses the higher art; in studying a face, he —

“…finds the man Behind it, and so paints him that his face, The shape and colour of a mind and life, Lives for his children ever at its best.”

No one can look at the magnificent portrait of Lord Heathfield with the Keys of the Fortress of Gibraltar, No. III, without feeling that the intrepid soldier, with his heroic grasp upon the great key of the impregnable rock, stands before one as in the flesh. It is usually conceded to be one of Reynolds’s greatest portraits, the most conspicuously known being the great painting of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, — this canvas, however, is not in the National Gallery. There is a study, though, for one of the attendant figures, that of Horror ; No. 1834 is a sketch made from himself by the master, and was introduced into the background of the great portrait. Mr. Henry Vaughan bequeathed this drawing to the National Gallery in 1900. The original picture is in Grosvenor House. There is a graceful story of Sir Joshua’s compliment to Mrs. Siddons. When she beheld the finished portrait of herself, she noticed a curious brocaded effect upon part of the border of the robe. As she approached to determine its true significance, she found it was the painter’s signature in full. One can hear in imagination the great artist, bowing before the tragedy queen in his genuine admiration, explaining, ” I could not resist the opportunity of sending my name to posterity on the hem of your garment! ”

Sir Joshua always set out with the determination of making the most of his subject. He claimed that it was no excuse for an artist to plead that his subject was a bad one. He observed that there was always nature, and this was sufficient when other attractions were absent. When he had to deal with such themes as the Portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson, No. 887, this motto stood him in good stead. No subject less picturesque could be conceived, — and yet, what a splendid picture! Doctor Johnson greatly respected Reynolds’s intellectual endowments, saying that, when Sir Joshua told him anything, he was possessed of one idea the more. Boswell, the faithful biographer of Johnson, may be seen here, too, limned by the master, No. 888. The portrait of Admiral Keppel, No. 886, also owes its charm to its sincerity, for the bluff old sea-dog was no more romantic-looking than the others. Reynolds had sailed with Admiral Keppel himself, when he visited Venice at the age of twenty-six in 1749-

The Portrait of Captain Orme, leaning on the neck of his horse, is a good picture, although the charger is somewhat invertebrate. This is No. 681, and represents the captain life-size; it is imposing. Captain Orme was aide-de-camp, with Washington, to General Braddock, in America, in 1755.

The equestrian portrait of Lord Ligonier, No. 143, may be classed with this one, although they are not similar. It was an early work of the artist. Reynolds, however, always liked this picture him-self, and said he had taken the scheme of light and shade from a wood-cut on a ballad-sheet !

There are two portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds himself here; one, No. 306, was painted for Mrs. Thrale, and is an earlier view of the master; No. 889, in brown, is a more mature likeness.

The Portrait of Two Gentlemen, No. 754, represents two young men, who were connoisseurs of the period, radically different in their history, but with the love of art in common. Rev. George Heddesford, who began life as a painter under Sir Joshua, is the elder of the two, at the left; he was twenty-nine at the time of the portrait, painted about 1779. The other youth was a sonneteer, named Bampfylde, who became the victim of an unrequited infatuation, which drove him insane, so that he died in an asylum. The ease and grace of the arrangement of this picture makes it linger in the memory; and the calm face of the elder man, with his long chin, is in interesting contrast to the countenance of his companion.

Those paintings, which, for lack of a better name, we usually call ” fancy pictures,” are among the most popularly known of Sir Joshua’s creations. His charming little cat-chinned Robinetta, No. 892, an early sketch from the Hon. Mrs. Tollemache, holding her tame bird, and leaning on its cage, is a universal favourite, as is also No. 307, which is called the Age of Innocence. The creamy texture of the draperies in this lovely study is one of its chief attractions. Reynolds’s sympathies went out to the refined and well-bred; his people are as fascinating to us as to the artist.

Love Unbinding the Zone of Beauty, sometimes called the Snake in the Grass, No. 885, is a delightful specimen of Reynolds’s imaginative work. The girl, with a coquettish glance from beneath her raised arm, is seated on a mossy bank, while Cupid is toying with her sash, about to unfasten it. In the grass in the corner, at the right of the canvas, is seen the reared and hissing head of an adder. Al-though the austere Cunningham alludes to this as a picture which he cannot ” hope to describe in the language of discretion,” it seems to our maturer vision to be harmless and charming. An allegory it is ; no one will combat its teaching, although it is capable of more than one interpretation.

The beautiful wreath of angel heads, No. 182, that bouquet of rose-hues, in all shades, from the delicate tea-rose, in its golden glow, to the rich pink of the Mermet, is a repeated portrait-study of little Frances Isabel Gordon. It was presented to the nation by Lady Gordon in 1841. It was a late work of Sir Joshua, and, according to Ruskin, ” ineffably finer than ever the Greeks did.” This celebrated picture, a photograph of which is in almost every home, is as nearly a spiritual conception as Sir Joshua was capable of. As a general rule, he had not that subtle imagination to picture the unseen in a convincing way, which is the chief attribute desirable for a religious painter. He portrayed life as it was about him. One of his many mottoes was, ” Labour is the only solid price of fame “; he worked conscientiously, and seldom rose to the imagery and sentiment of this matchless child-head.

Thomas Gainsborough, born in 1727, was as great as Sir Joshua, and in some respects has been considered in advance of his famous contemporary, As is the case with most of the great Englishmen, his talent showed itself early. When his school-master refused him a holiday, the boy, nothing daunted, copied his father’s writing, and handed a slip to the master, which read, ” Give Tom a holiday.” Tom was accordingly sent off, and spent the day gleefully and innocently sketching from nature. When his father discovered his son’s talent for forgery, he exclaimed, ” Tom will be hung ! ” but, when he examined the drawings, he remarked, ” Tom will be a genius ! ”

Mr. Betew, the silversmith and picture-dealer, used to glory in the fact that he had been instrumental in disposing of some of Gainsborough’s early pictures, saying : ” I have had many a drawing of his in my shop-window before he went to Bath. Ay, and he has often been glad to receive seven or eight shillings from me for what I have sold ! ” In 176o he moved to Bath, where he lived until 1774, when he returned to London for the rest of his days. When he was only nineteen, a beautiful girl happened to pass across the field which he was painting; he fell in love with her, sought her acquaintance, and afterward married her. She proved to be an excellent and thrifty wife, and the young artist prospered so steadily that the town wags used to call his house ” Gain’s Borough ! ”

His allegiance sometimes almost swerved to music; his temperament was so rounded on its æsthetic side that form, colour, and sound were to him as if necessary to one another. He would offer a large sum for a violin or other instrument which had made its appeal, and then engage the former owner to teach him to play upon it! When Gains-borough heard a musical instrument which he liked, he usually purchased it incontinently. Jackson, the organist, writes : ” The next time I saw Gains-borough, it was in the character of King David. He had hired a harper in Bath, — the performer was soon harpless ! ”

It is delightful to read a letter from Gainsborough to a friend, in 1758, in which he says : ” You please me by saying that no other fault is found in your picture” (this refers to a painting which the gentleman, Mr. Edgar, a lawyer, had ordered and received from the artist) ” than the roughness of the surface, for that part being of use in giving force to the effect at a proper distance, is what a judge of painting knows an original from a copy by; in short, being the touch of the pencil, which is harder to preserve than smoothness. I am much better pleased that they should spy out things of that kind than to see an eye half an inch out of its place, or a nose out of drawing. . . . I don’t think it would be more ridiculous for a person to put his nose close to the canvas and say that the colour smelt offensive, than to say how rough the paint lies.” At the end of some further dissertation on ” touch,” Gainsborough adds, whether in mischief or in innocence it is hard to determine ; ” I little thought you were a lawyer when I said that one in ten were not worth hanging. . . It’s too late to ask your pardon now; but, really, sir, I never saw one of your profession look so honest in my life, and that’s the reason why I concluded you were in the wool trade.”

Zoffany’s portrait of Gainsborough, No. 1487, should be observed while we are studying the painter; it is in profile, but shows the smooth-shaven face with an angle indicative of mental perceptions.

When Gainsborough painted portraits of the actors, Garrick and Foote, their changing expression greatly annoyed him. He cried out, indignantly : ” They are a couple of rogues ! They have every one’s face but their own ! ” He under-took a portrait of Shakespeare, but was disgusted with it; in a letter to Garrick he says : ” I have been several days rubbing in and rubbing out my design of Shakespeare; and hang me if I think I shall let it go, or let you see it at last.”

He and Reynolds did not agree. The well-ordered Sir Joshua looked with some disapproval on the impulsive disorder of Gainsborough’s manner of behaviour; instead of hard work, such as Reynolds always advised and employed himself, Gains-borough depended more upon dash and inspiration, — and he had so much of each that they served his turn as well as Sir Joshua’s more sincere methods. Sir Joshua had an admiration for him, however. ” I cannot think how he produces his effects,” Reynolds would say ; while the more energetic Gainsborough burst out, looking at Sir Joshua’s work : ” D _____ him ! How various he is ! ” Owing partly to his rapid execution, and partly to his peculiar method of hatching, Gainsborough’s pictures have not cracked, even in the shadows. In this he has been more fortunate than Sir Joshua.

Petty rivalries abounded among academicians. At a dinner, for instance, Sir Joshua is seen to rise and propose a toast, in order to annoy Richard Wilson : ” The health of Mr. Gainsborough — the greatest landscape-painter of the day ! ” whereupon he is followed by Wilson, who adds, surlily : ” Yes, — and the greatest portrait-painter, too ! ” No love was lost then between rivals : is it now?

In 1784 Gainsborough had a tiff with the hanging committee of the Academy, which resulted in his never sending another work to their exhibitions. Whatever may have been the irritating cause, it is easy to see that there was fault on his side, by perusing the note which accompanied his last exhibit : ” Mr. Gainsborough presents his compliments to the gentlemen appointed to hang pictures at the Royal Academy, and begs leave to hint to them that if the Royal Family which he has sent for the exhibition are hung above the line along with the full-lengths, he never more whilst he breathes will send another picture to the exhibition. This he swears by God. Saturday morning.” This not very conciliatory attack was answered by his pictures being quietly returned; and that severed all connection between Gainsborough and the Academy.

His death was almost sudden. One day, while at the trial of Warren Hastings, he felt an icy touch on the back of his neck. When he returned home, his wife examined the spot, and found a small white patch. This proved to be a quick-growing cancer, and in a short time it ended the artist’s life, although he lived to be sixty-one years old. When he knew himself to be dying, he sent for Sir Joshua, wishing to be at peace with his great rival at the last. A touching scene it must have been, when the two great artists met at this solemn moment. They parted in perfect harmony, Gainsborough’s last words to Reynolds being : ” We are all going to heaven, and Van Dyck will be of the company ! ” He died in 1788. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were among his pall-bearers.

The famous Market-Cart, No. 8o, is a combination of landscape and figure painting, such as is most characteristic of Gainsborough. It has the brown and green of which he was so fond, and the masses are more considered than the detail, — in this he is prophetic of impressionism. The Watering-Place, No. 109, has these same features. Both are among the most essentially British landscapes in art, while another study full of the same charm is No. 309, also called the Watering-Place. In No. 310, with the sunset light resting on man and horse, is seen an elegy of evening relaxation after the strenuous day, full of sentiment, and painted tenderly. Examine all his landscapes, — they will repay you. Great Cornard Wood, known as Gainsborough’s Forest, No. 925, is noble and dignified. Sir George Beaumont, a keen lover and appreciator of æsthetics, compares Gainsborough’s landscapes with Grey’s ” Elegy.” The parallel is striking’ here. He has been criticized for introducing into the picture the shadows of trees and objects, the originals of which cannot be seen; but this feature seems to me to enhance the charm felt from the depth of a forest, continuing as it does the impression of close-growing trees, and doing away with the feeling one often has with a forest painting, of standing on the edge of a wood and looking in. It proves that the spectator is in the midst of the thicket, instead of standing in an outer clearing, and I can imagine no unpleasant sense of curiosity breaking in upon the charm of the scene.

As a studio expedient, Gainsborough used at times to collect features in miniature like those of a landscape, — rocks, herbs, bits of looking-glass, — and make them up into little models to assist him in his compositions. Even donkeys had been led into his studio to serve as models ! One of the free idyls of the fields is No. 1488, where two donkeys are ridden by rural peasants, — it is genuine English genre painting. Another of the happy rustic pictures, for which Gainsborough was justly famous, is No. 311, of Country Children.

No. 308, known as Musidora Bathing Her Feet, is in illustration of Thompson’s lines :

“For, to ! conducted by the laughing loves This cool retreat his Musidora sought; Warm in her cheek the sultry season glowed, And, robed in loose array, she came to bathe Her fervent limbs in the refreshing stream.”

It is supposed that the renowned Lady Hamilton sat for Musidora; this is one of only two nudes extant by Gainsborough. One can only regret that there are not more. The legend that this was taken from Lady Hamilton is not without foundation, for the illustrious Emma, when she was a young adventuress, was engaged to pose without draperies in the Temple of Health conducted by Doctor Graham, who had his establishment under the same roof with Gainsborough. Nothing would have been more likely than that the painter should avail himself of such an opportunity.

In colour, Gainsborough was original. Cool blues and greens and golden tones prevail over the ruddier shades. Speaking broadly, the chief characteristic of Reynold’s colour is golden light, while that of Gainsborough is more of silver. He painted women and children better than he did men; his male portraits and studies have some touch of effeminacy as a rule.

Nothing more dashing or more shimmering can be conceived than the Portrait of Mrs. Siddons, No. 683. The stately and yet witching elements, both traits so well emphasized by the high black bridle and the rakish hat, pervade the personality of this noted stage favourite, and the whole portrait is unsurpassed. The story that his famous Blue Boy was painted as a proof that one could do the exact opposite in colouring from that pre-scribed by Reynolds, is more likely to be true of this matchless portrait, which carefully defies all the rules of Sir Joshua, while it offers a substitute of absolutely satisfactory harmonies along the key of blue (with the exception of the red curtain, — the only questionable note in the picture). His handling is quite his own. It is not based upon the formulas of any school. In the hair of Mrs. Sid-dons it seems, on close inspection, as if he had done a great deal of unnecessary scratching and irrelevant line-work; but at a little distance these marks, which looked so aimless, fall into place in a most delightful way, and a light, living quality is thus imparted. Mood and feeling are thus more to be detected in his work than trained skill. While he was painting Mrs. Siddons, he made her laugh by exclaiming : ” D _____ it, madam, there is no end to your nose ! ” He had the rare talent of making his draperies part of his scheme, in which he is equalled only by Rubens and Van Dyck.

The Parish Clerk, Orpin, is the subject of the peaceful and tender portrait, No. 76o. Living in the little steep town of Bradford, near Bath, this sweet old man’s face attracted the painter, who made from it one of his happiest portraits. The gentle feminine quality is less out of place here than in many of his portraits of men. There was a carrier named John Wiltshire, who used to take Gainsborough’s pictures from Bath to London. He refused a regular fee for his services, saying : ” No, no, I love art for its own sake; when you think I have earned it, give me one little picture, and I shall feel more than repaid.” Gainsborough was so delighted with the man’s spirit that he gave him several, and this delightful Orpin was among them. Once, Gainsborough, wishing to paint a horse, borrowed one from Wiltshire; as a graceful return for the carrier’s loan, he painted a horse and wagon, with himself and family in the cart, and sent it to Wiltshire as a present.

For animal studies by Gainsborough, one turns to No. 1484, a study of an old horse, and No. 1483, a painting of dogs. The first of these, al-though not beautiful, suggests the tired drudgery of a working-animal with great comprehension. The other is especially interesting, as it represents the two pet dogs of Gainsborough and his wife. The story goes that, when words had passed between his master and mistress, Fox, Gainsborough’s dog, used to be entrusted with a little note of apology, which was conveyed to Tristram, Mrs. Gainsborough’s pet. If Mrs. Gainsborough accepted the expressions of regret and repentance which were contained in this note, she would send an answer to that effect by Tristram to Fox, who delivered it to his master !

While Reynolds saw things in colour, Rembrandt in light and shade, and Holbein in outline, Gainsborough saw all these elements together, and form did not predominate over colour, nor chiaroscuro over either. He has great balance, and his compositions and plans for pictures have great simplicity. They are directly to the main point, and free from by-play or secondary interests.