Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Reginald Brimley Johnson
Sir Joshua Reynolds (17231792)
[Sir Joshua Reynolds was born at Plympton Earls, near Plymouth, 16th July 1723. He studied in London under Thomas Hudson, and in Italy, which he was enabled to visit by the generosity of Lord Keppel. He returned to London in 1752, where his genius and geniality soon secured him the friendship of Dr. Johnson and his circle, for whom he established the famous Literary Club in 1764. He was elected President of the Royal Academy at its foundation in 1768, and retained that position, except during a brief rupture with the Academicians, until his death in February 1792. It was as President of the Royal Academy that he delivered the Discourses on which his literary fame rests.
They were published one by one, and collected in Malones editions of his Works, 1797, which also contained his Three Letters to the Idler, Nos. 76, 79, and 82; A Journey to Flanders and Holland in the Year MDCCLXXI.; and his Notes on Du Fresnoys Art of Painting. He contributed five notes to Dr. Johnsons Shakespeare, 1775, which may be found in the appendices at the end of vol. viii. His Johnson and Garrick was privately printed by his niece in 1815, and W. Cotton has published various fragments from his diaries and notebooks in the volumes called Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works, 1856, Sir Joshua Reynolds Notes and Observations on Pictures, 1859.]
IN this country the science of criticism may be said to have begun, in literature with Addison, perhaps the greatest of English essayists, in art with Sir Joshua Reynolds, perhaps the greatest of English painters.
The Discourses of Reynolds, at least, are the earliest art criticisms we have of any permanent value, for in this province even Dryden is scarcely of more account than Jonathan Richardson, Spence, Webb, or Harris. These writers to some extent anticipated Reynolds ideas, but their work has no important place in the evolution of the subject, and therefore does not affect the value of his.
His methods, like Addisons, were based on a foundation of sobriety and common sense. In lecturing at the Academy, he expatiated upon the qualities which go to form a fine picture; he described the various schools of painting, with the merits and defects of each; he specified the characteristics of the several masters, showing what was to be imitated and what to be avoided, and he detailed to learners the modes of proceeding which would best enable them to appropriate the beauties of their forerunners. As an instructor he laboured under the difficulty of reconciling certain traditional formulas, the truth of which he never questioned, with the particular judgments resulting from his vigorous critical faculty. Like the poets of his day he showed a disposition to edge away from the types which he professed to admit as ideally correct. In extolling the grand style, for instance, he advocated the theory, so persistently denounced by Mr. Ruskin, that Nature herself is not to be too closely copied, yet in many passages he applauded the very practice which, according to his principles, he ought to have condemned. Indeed the technical teaching in the Eighth Discourse might be almost entirely adopted by the Pre-Raphaelites.1 But the age, as Mr. Leslie Stephen remarks, was not favourable to consistency and thoroughness. It has been further objected, by Hazlitt, Blake, and others, that Reynolds glorification of industry tended to the extinction of genius, and that he showed his ignorance of human nature by expecting the knowledge of rules to bear fruit in enthusiasm and inspiration.
But while accepting the general theories of such men as Du Fresnoy and De Piles, and discouraging the expression of youthful eccentricity, he commended independence and originality, and relied finally on his own unrivalled technical experience. He believed that excellence and facility could only be attained by a thoughtful study of nature and of art. The study of art should incite to imitation, by which alone
variety and even originality of invention is produced . It will be necessary for you, in the first place, never to lose sight of the great rules and principles of the art, as they are collected from the full body of the best general practice and the most constant and uniform experience; this must be the ground-work of all your studies: afterwards you may profit by the peculiar experience and personal talents of artists living and dead; you may derive lights and catch hints from their practice; but the moment you turn them into models, you fall infinitely below them; you may be corrupted by excellencies, not so much belonging to the art, as personal and appropriated to the artist; and become bad copiers of good painters, instead of excellent imitators of the great universal truth of things.
It was upon the great universal truth of things that he founded a theory of beauty, largely resembling that of Père Buffier. He did not enter into the speculations of such writers as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, regarding the nature of a special sense for the perception of beauty; but maintained, with Burke and Hogarth, the existence of an objective standard of beauty. Ideal Beauty, according to his view, is the invariable general form which nature most frequently produces, and always seems to intend in her productions . In every particular species there are various central forms, undeniably beautiful, but perfect beauty in any species must combine all the characters which are beautiful in that species. To the ideally perfect taste these central forms appear most beautiful because they are most general, and not, as Burke and Hogarth would have said, because of their correspondence to a determinable criterion of form. Though the types of different species are thus all equally beautiful, yet from accidental associations we may prefer one to another, and there are certain apparent or secondary truths or beauties, proceeding from local and temporary prejudices, which deserve and require the attention of the artist, in proportion to their stability or duration, or as their influence is more or less extensive; but these must not prevent or weaken the influence of those general principles, which alone can give to art its true and permanent dignity.
But the spirit of his teaching was perhaps as helpful as its philosophy. By setting before his students an ideal of culture, earnestness, and reverence, he raised their whole conceptions of art; and by keeping their minds on high things, he taught them the uses of humility and ambition. His Discourses, moreover, were very popular with The Town, the reading public of the day. He established a national standard in art, as Addison had done in literature, and, according to Mr. Courthope, these two critics accomplished more than any others in England towards the end of criticism, which is to produce a habit of reasoning rightly in matters of taste and imagination.
The personal charm and strength of character, which doubtless assisted the universal recognition of his genius, may account in part for the great influence of his writings. His style, though somewhat formal, was graceful, simple, and urbane. He had been trained in the classical school of Dr. Johnson, who qualified him to think justly, but fortunately his admiration of the master did not tempt him to forget, in composition, the true principles of imitation which he expounded in the Discourses.
The spirited imaginary dialogues, called Johnson and Garrick, must not be forgotten in an estimate of Reynolds work in literature. This witty jeu desprit, in which the doctors manner is most happily burlesqued, was written by Reynolds to illustrate his saying that Dr. Johnson considered Garrick as his property, and would not suffer any one to praise or blame him but himself. As its authors only attempt at imaginative composition, it is a remarkable achievement.