18th Century Wisdom

February 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

Whenever I visit art museums I usually walk as quickly as I can past the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and his ilk (Henry Raeburn excepted) to get to Constable and Turner. Reynolds has never been, nor will he ever be, among my pantheon of painting gods.  (The self-portrait above is an exception.) Perhaps it’s the knighthood that puts me off. “Sir” seems an ill-fitting prefix to the name of an artist, the archetypical rebel against rules, a free agent of consciousness unbeholden to institutions of any kind. Frank Auerbach and David Hockney refused the honor, as did David Bowie. Sir Mick Jagger’s acceptance of the title has a certain slyness about it, as if he’s winking secretly. In truth, it’s not the “Sir” I have a problem with. It’s the paintings.

Sir Joshua’s contribution to art history of course cannot be diminished. As a founding member and first president of the Royal Academy, a post he held from 1768 to 1792,  Reynolds did much to elevate the status of the artist in society and to preserve traditional studio knowledge and its teaching. If the work of his hand seems too “official,” too conformative to the grand-style conceits of his day to hold one’s interest for very long, the work of his pen is another matter.

Reynolds’ Discourses on Art, delivered as a series of lectures from 1769 to 1790 to students of the Royal Academy, are rich indeed, and still speak to the concerns of students of painting today, if you have the patience to parse the meat from the embroidery of 18th century rhetoric. Neither Reynolds, nor his audience,  would even faintly understand what we mean today by the term “Attention Deficit Disorder.” Ideas were things to be taken down with a quill pen on paper, not something to Google and bookmark for later. Like anything valuable, you have to work at it to get the benefit.

Not every topic or drift of thought in the Discourses will resonate today. Even in his own time there were critics. William Blake wrote “Lies!,” “Villainy!” and “Nonsense!” in the margins of his copy of the Discourses. The Pre-Raphaelites dubbed Reynolds, “Sir Sloshua.” His critics notwithstanding, anyone who has struggled under the modern “Art Can’t Be Taught” zeitgeist to discover or re-discover useful studio knowledge will appreciate the practical wisdom of Reynolds teaching.

My favorite of the Discourses is number XI, in which Reynolds addresses himself to the problem of “finish” and the relationship of parts to the whole. Many of the ideas he articulates can be found in similar statements by later artists. There are echoes of Reynolds in Matisse’s assertion that “a work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject matter.”  Or his statement: “All that is not useful in the picture is detrimental. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety; for superfluous details would, in the mind of the beholder, encroach upon the essential elements.”

Here is an abstract of the essential points of Discourse XI. Quotation marks enclose direct phrasing from the original text. My comments are enclosed in parentheses.

  • There is “genius” in the power of expressing the subject as a whole, so that the general effect and power of the whole impresses the mind, before the subordinate parts.
  • There are “great characteristic distinctions” (contrasts, masses) in all subjects which are more than just accumulations of small particulars or details… Putting in details which do not assist the expression of the main characteristic is “worse than useless, it is mischievous” because it detracts attention from the whole.
  • When the general effect is presented skillfully it appears to represent the object in a more lively way.
  • This raises the question of why we are not always pleased by exact imitation (wax works, e.g.). Pleasure is not proportionate to amount of detail. On the contrary – we are pleased by seeing ends accomplished by seemingly inadequate (or surprising) means.
  • Excellence in color, drawing, or modeling is only attained with the habit of looking upon objects at large and observing the effect on the eye when it is “dilated” (out-of-focus), and employed upon the whole without seeing any of the parts distinctly. This is how to obtain the “ruling characteristic” (the “macchia,” the “notan,” or the tonal structure) and how to learn to put it down by “dextrous methods” (with economy.)
  • The work of great masters is not in the finish but in their ability to see everything as one (interconnected) whole.
  • Titian knew how to mark by a few strokes the general image and character of whatever object he painted. Took great care to express the masses of color, light & shade, which convey the effect of completeness. Lacking this structure the picture may contain much finishing of details but will always look unfinished (disorganized, lacking unity or coherence.)
  • It is vain to attend to all the variations of hue if the general hue (the key) is lost, or to finish the smaller parts if the greater masses are not observed, or if the whole is not put together well.
  • Affecting dexterity without selection or a discriminating eye leads to what Vasari calls “goffe pitture,” or “absurd, foolish pictures.”
  • Works of great art, like poetry, raises by the power of the language the most mundane things. This is the power of great artists. No subject is too insignificant.
  • On “finishing:” Not recommending a lack of detail, for the judicious detail will often convey the convincing sense of truth. This should be left to the painter’s taste and judgment. But there is a distinction between “essential and subordinate powers,” or what draws the chief attention.
  • Condemns another kind of finishing: the indiscriminate blending and gradating of colors (over-modeling). The true effect of representation consists very much in preserving the same proportion of sharpness and softness found in the subject (attention to edges, or meeting of masses).
  • The value of drawings which seem unfinished or rough is that they give the idea of the whole, dextrously expressed.
  • A landscape painter attending to the masses of foliage would produce a better likeness than a painter who thought to imitate each leaf.
  • When a painter knows his subject he knows what to omit as well as what to put in. This skill in leaving out is a great part of knowledge and wisdom.
  • The excellence of portrait painting, and the likeness itself, depends more on observation of the general effect of light and shade than on exactitude in particulars. The chief attention is given to planting the features in their proper places. A painter may labor to refine the particulars but never forget to examine and weigh whether in finishing he is not destroying the general effect.
  • On subject matter: In half the pictures in the world, the subject can be valued only as an occasion which sets the artist to work. This shows how much our attention is engaged by the art alone.
  • Subject matter in great paintings is often of no account. The interest and power of painting lies in the dexterity of the artist under the command of this “comprehensive faculty” (the ability to regard the subject abstractly as a whole rather than as an inventory of disconnected parts.) This is the power which raises mechanical dexterity above the common level (mere skill or technique). It becomes an instance in which mind predominates over matter by contracting into one whole the multifarious expressions of nature. A greater truth may be expressed in a few lines or touches if one regards the whole, than in the most laborious finishing of the parts when this is disregarded.
  • This is not to encourage carelessness, lack of finish or exactness, but to point out the best kind of exactness. Diligence in study and practice is needed to acquire a sense of the whole. It requires the painter’s entire mind, whereas finishing details may be done while the mind is distracted.
  • The “ease and laziness” of highly finishing the parts, producing the “laborious effects of idleness.”
  • When diligence is properly employed work cannot be too finished but, nine times out of ten, excessive labor in the detail has been “pernicious” to the general effect (unit of the whole).
  • The need to give “right direction to your industry.” To acquire the habit and art of seeing nature in an “extensive view,” in its relative proportions and its due subordination of parts (the hierarchy or relative dominance and subordination of the various parts of the composition).
  • The purpose of studying masters is to understand the great principles which the work embodies. Consider the works only as a means of teaching one the art of seeing nature. The great business of study is to “form a mind,” adapted to and adequate to all occasions.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art.

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