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Seven Discourses on Art by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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Rhoden and Jo Osment. It is the 1901 Cassell and Company edition.


by Sir Joshua Reynolds


It is a happy memory that associates the foundation of our Royal
Academy with the delivery of these inaugural discourses by Sir
Joshua Reynolds, on the opening of the schools, and at the first
annual meetings for the distribution of its prizes. They laid down
principles of art from the point of view of a man of genius who had
made his power felt, and with the clear good sense which is the
foundation of all work that looks upward and may hope to live. The
truths here expressed concerning Art may, with slight adjustment of
the way of thought, be applied to Literature or to any exercise of
the best powers of mind for shaping the delights that raise us to
the larger sense of life. In his separation of the utterance of
whole truths from insistance upon accidents of detail, Reynolds was
right, because he guarded the expression of his view with careful
definitions of its limits. In the same way Boileau was right, as a
critic of Literature, in demanding everywhere good sense, in
condemning the paste brilliants of a style then in decay, and
fixing attention upon the masterly simplicity of Roman poets in the
time of Augustus. Critics by rule of thumb reduced the principles
clearly defined by Boileau to a dull convention, against which
there came in course of time a strong reaction. In like manner the
teaching of Reynolds was applied by dull men to much vague and
conventional generalisation in the name of dignity. Nevertheless,
Reynolds taught essential truths of Art. The principles laid down
by him will never fail to give strength to the right artist, or
true guidance towards the appreciation of good art, though here and
there we may not wholly assent to some passing application of them,
where the difference may be great between a fashion of thought in
his time and in ours. A righteous enforcement of exact truth in
our day has led many into a readiness to appreciate more really the
minute imitation of a satin dress, or a red herring, than the
noblest figure in the best of Raffaelle's cartoons. Much good
should come of the diffusion of this wise little book.

Joshua Reynolds was born on the 15th of July, 1723, the son of a
clergyman and schoolmaster, at Plympton in Devonshire. His bent
for Art was clear and strong from his childhood. In 1741 at the
age of nineteen, he began study, and studied for two yours in
London under Thomas Hudson, a successful portrait painter. Then he
went back to Devonshire and painted portraits, aided for some time
in his education by attention to the work of William Gandy of
Exeter. When twenty-six years old, in May, 1749, Reynolds was
taken away by Captain Keppel to the Mediterranean, and brought into
contact with the works of the great painters of Italy. He stayed
two years in Rome, and in accordance with the principles afterwards
laid down in these lectures, he refused, when in Rome, commissions
for copying, and gave his mind to minute observation of the art of
the great masters by whose works he was surrounded. He spent two
months in Florence, six weeks in Venice, a few days in Bologna and
Parma. "If," he said, "I had never seen any of the fine works of
Correggio, I should never, perhaps, have remarked in Nature the
expression which I find in one of his pieces; or if I had remarked
it, I might have thought it too difficult, or perhaps impossible to

In 1753 Reynolds came back to England, and stayed three months in
Devonshire before setting up a studio in London, in St. Martin's
Lane, which was then an artists' quarter. His success was rapid.
In 1755 he had one hundred and twenty-five sitters. Samuel Johnson
found in him his most congenial friend. He moved to Newport
Street, and he built himself a studio--where there is now an
auction room--at 47, Lincoln's Inn Fields. There he remained for

In 1760 the artists opened, in a room lent by the Society of Arts,
a free Exhibition for the sale of their works. This was continued
the next year at Spring Gardens, with a charge of a shilling for
admission. In 1765 they obtained a charter of incorporation, and
in 1768 the King gave his support to the foundation of a Royal
Academy of Arts by seceders from the preceding "Incorporated
Society of Artists," into which personal feelings had brought much
division. It was to consist, like the French Academy, of forty
members, and was to maintain Schools open to all students of good
character who could give evidence that they had fully learnt the
rudiments of Art. The foundation by the King dates from the 10th
of December, 1768. The Schools were opened on the 2nd of January
next following, and on that occasion Joshua Reynolds, who had been
elected President--his age was then between forty-five and forty-
six--gave the Inaugural Address which formed the first of these
Seven Discourses. The other six were given by him, as President,
at the next six annual meetings: and they were all shaped to form,
when collected into a volume, a coherent body of good counsel upon
the foundations of the painter's art.

H. M.


The regular progress of cultivated life is from necessaries to
accommodations, from accommodations to ornaments. By your
illustrious predecessors were established marts for manufactures,
and colleges for science; but for the arts of elegance, those arts
by which manufactures are embellished and science is refined, to
found an academy was reserved for your Majesty.

Had such patronage been without effect, there had been reason to
believe that nature had, by some insurmountable impediment,
obstructed our proficiency; but the annual improvement of the
exhibitions which your Majesty has been pleased to encourage shows
that only encouragement had been wanting.

To give advice to those who are contending for royal liberality has
been for some years the duty of my station in the Academy; and
these Discourses hope for your Majesty's acceptance as well-
intended endeavours to incite that emulation which your notice has
kindled, and direct those studies which your bounty has rewarded.

May it please your Majesty,
Your Majesty's
Most dutiful servant,
And most faithful subject,


Gentlemen,--That you have ordered the publication of this Discourse
is not only very flattering to me, as it implies your approbation
of the method of study which I have recommended; but likewise, as
this method receives from that act such an additional weight and
authority as demands from the students that deference and respect,
which can be due only to the united sense of so considerable a body
of artists.

I am,
With the greatest esteem and respect,
Your most humble
And obedient servant,



Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769,
by the President

Gentlemen,--An academy in which the polite arts may be regularly
cultivated is at last opened among us by royal munificence. This
must appear an event in the highest degree interesting, not only to
the artists, but to the whole nation.

It is indeed difficult to give any other reason why an Empire like
that of Britain should so long have wanted an ornament so suitable
to its greatness than that slow progression of things which
naturally makes elegance and refinement the last effect of opulence
and power.

An institution like this has often been recommended upon
considerations merely mercantile. But an academy founded upon such
principles can never effect even its own narrow purposes. If it
has an origin no higher, no taste can ever be formed in it which
can be useful even in manufactures; but if the higher arts of
design flourish, these inferior ends will be answered of course.

We are happy in having a prince who has conceived the design of
such an institution, according to its true dignity, and promotes
the arts, as the head of a great, a learned, a polite, and a
commercial nation; and I can now congratulate you, gentlemen, on
the accomplishment of your long and ardent wishes.

The numberless and ineffectual consultations that I have had with
many in this assembly, to form plans and concert schemes for an
academy, afford a sufficient proof of the impossibility of
succeeding but by the influence of Majesty. But there have,
perhaps, been times when even the influence of Majesty would have
been ineffectual, and it is pleasing to reflect that we are thus
embodied, when every circumstance seems to concur from which honour
and prosperity can probably arise.

There are at this time a greater number of excellent artists than
were ever known before at one period in this nation; there is a
general desire among our nobility to be distinguished as lovers and
judges of the arts; there is a greater superfluity of wealth among
the people to reward the professors; and, above all, we are
patronised by a monarch, who, knowing the value of science and of
elegance, thinks every art worthy of his notice that tends to
soften and humanise the mind.

After so much has been done by his Majesty, it will be wholly our
fault if our progress is not in some degree correspondent to the
wisdom and, generosity of the institution; let us show our
gratitude in our diligence, that, though our merit may not answer
his expectations, yet, at least, our industry may deserve his

But whatever may be our proportion of success, of this we may be
sure, that the present institution will at least contribute to
advance our knowledge of the arts, and bring us nearer to that
ideal excellence which it is the lot of genius always to
contemplate and never to attain.

The principal advantage of an academy is, that, besides furnishing
able men to direct the student, it will be a repository for the
great examples of the art. These are the materials on which genius
is to work, and without which the strongest intellect may be
fruitlessly or deviously employed. By studying these authentic
models, that idea of excellence which is the result of the
accumulated experience of past ages may be at once acquired, and
the tardy and obstructed progress of our predecessors may teach us
a shorter and easier way. The student receives at one glance the
principles which many artists have spent their whole lives in
ascertaining; and, satisfied with their effect, is spared the
painful investigation by which they come to be known and fixed.
How many men of great natural abilities have been lost to this
nation for want of these advantages? They never had an opportunity
of seeing those masterly efforts of genius which at once kindle the
whole soul, and force it into sudden and irresistible approbation.

Raffaelle, it is true, had not the advantage of studying in an
academy; but all Rome, and the works of Michael Angelo in
particular, were to him an academy. On the site of the Capel la
Sistina he immediately from a dry, Gothic, and even insipid manner,
which attends to the minute accidental discriminations of
particular and individual objects, assumed that grand style of
painting, which improves partial representation by the general and
invariable ideas of nature.

Every seminary of learning may be said to be surrounded with an
atmosphere of floating knowledge, where every mind may imbibe
somewhat congenial to its own original conceptions. Knowledge,
thus obtained, has always something more popular and useful than
that which is forced upon the mind by private precepts or solitary
meditation. Besides, it is generally found that a youth more
easily receives instruction from the companions of his studies,
whose minds are nearly on a level with his own, than from those who
are much his superiors; and it is from his equals only that he
catches the fire of emulation.

One advantage, I will venture to affirm, we shall have in our
academy, which no other nation can boast. We shall have nothing to
unlearn. To this praise the present race of artists have a just
claim. As far as they have yet proceeded they are right. With us
the exertions of genius will henceforward be directed to their
proper objects. It will not be as it has been in other schools,
where he that travelled fastest only wandered farthest from the
right way.

Impressed as I am, therefore, with such a favourable opinion of my
associates in this undertaking, it would ill become me to dictate
to any of them. But as these institutions have so often failed in
other nations, and as it is natural to think with regret how much
might have been done, and how little has been done, I must take
leave to offer a few hints, by which those errors may be rectified,
and those defects supplied. These the professors and visitors may
reject or adopt as they shall think proper.

I would chiefly recommend that an implicit obedience to the rules
of art, as established by the great masters, should be exacted from
the YOUNG students. That those models, which have passed through
the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect
and infallible guides as subjects for their imitation, not their

I am confident that this is the only efficacious method of making a
progress in the arts; and that he who sets out with doubting will
find life finished before he becomes master of the rudiments. For
it may be laid down as a maxim, that he who begins by presuming on
his own sense has ended his studies as soon as he has commenced
them. Every opportunity, therefore, should be taken to
discountenance that false and vulgar opinion that rules are the
fetters of genius. They are fetters only to men of no genius; as
that armour, which upon the strong becomes an ornament and a
defence, upon the weak and misshapen turns into a load, and
cripples the body which it was made to protect.

How much liberty may be taken to break through those rules, and, as
the poet expresses it,

"To snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,"

may be an after consideration, when the pupils become masters
themselves. It is then, when their genius has received its utmost
improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us
not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building.

The directors ought more particularly to watch over the genius of
those students who, being more advanced, are arrived at that
critical period of study, on the nice management of which their
future turn of taste depends. At that age it is natural for them
to be more captivated with what is brilliant than with what is
solid, and to prefer splendid negligence to painful and humiliating

A facility in composing, a lively, and what is called a masterly
handling the chalk or pencil, are, it must be confessed,
captivating qualities to young minds, and become of course the
objects of their ambition. They endeavour to imitate those
dazzling excellences, which they will find no great labour in
attaining. After much time spent in these frivolous pursuits, the
difficulty will be to retreat; but it will be then too late; and
there is scarce an instance of return to scrupulous labour after
the mind has been debauched and deceived by this fallacious

By this useless industry they are excluded from all power of
advancing in real excellence. Whilst boys, they are arrived at
their utmost perfection; they have taken the shadow for the
substance; and make that mechanical facility the chief excellence
of the art, which is only an ornament, and of the merit of which
few but painters themselves are judges.

This seems to me to be one of the most dangerous sources of
corruption; and I speak of it from experience, not as an error
which may possibly happen, but which has actually infected all
foreign academies. The directors were probably pleased with this
premature dexterity in their pupils, and praised their despatch at
the expense of their correctness.

But young men have not only this frivolous ambition of being
thought masterly inciting them on one hand, but also their natural
sloth tempting them on the other. They are terrified at the
prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness.
The impetuosity of youth is distrusted at the slow approaches of a
regular siege, and desires, from mere impatience of labour, to take
the citadel by storm. They wish to find some shorter path to
excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other
means than those which the indispensable rules of art have
prescribed. They must, therefore, be told again and again that
labour is the only price of solid fame, and that whatever their
force of genius may be, there is no easy method of becoming a good

When we read the lives of the most eminent painters, every page
informs us that no part of their time was spent in dissipation.
Even an increase of fame served only to augment their industry. To
be convinced with what persevering assiduity they pursued their
studies, we need only reflect on their method of proceeding in
their most celebrated works. When they conceived a subject, they
first made a variety of sketches; then a finished drawing of the
whole; after that a more correct drawing of every separate part,
heads, hands, feet, and pieces of drapery; they then painted the
picture, and after all re-touched it from the life. The pictures,
thus wrought with such pain, now appear like the effect of
enchantment, and as if some mighty genius had struck them off at a

But, whilst diligence is thus recommended to the students, the
visitors will take care that their diligence be effectual; that it
be well directed and employed on the proper object. A student is
not always advancing because he is employed; he must apply his
strength to that part of the art where the real difficulties lie;
to that part which distinguishes it as a liberal art, and not by
mistaken industry lose his time in that which is merely ornamental.
The students, instead of vying with each other which shall have the
readiest band, should be taught to contend who shall have the
purest and most correct outline, instead of striving which shall
produce the brightest tint, or, curiously trifling endeavour to
give the gloss of stuffs so as to appear real, let their ambition
be directed to contend which shall dispose his drapery in the most
graceful folds, which shall give the most grace and dignity to the
human figure.

I must beg leave to submit one thing more to the consideration of
the visitors, which appears to me a matter of very great
consequence, and the omission of which I think a principal defect
in the method of education pursued in all the academies I have ever
visited. The error I mean is, that the students never draw exactly
from the living models which they have before them. It is not
indeed their intention, nor are they directed to do it. Their
drawings resemble the model only in the attitude. They change the
form according to their vague and uncertain ideas of beauty, and
make a drawing rather of what they think the figure ought to be
than of what it appears. I have thought this the obstacle that has
stopped the progress of many young men of real genius; and I very
much doubt whether a habit of drawing correctly what we see will
not give a proportionable power of drawing correctly what we
imagine. He who endeavours to copy nicely the figure before him
not only acquires a habit of exactness and precision, but is
continually advancing in his knowledge of the human figure; and
though he seems to superficial observers to make a slower progress,
he will be found at last capable of adding (without running into
capricious wildness) that grace and beauty which is necessary to be
given to his more finished works, and which cannot be got by the
moderns, as it was not acquired by the ancients, but by an
attentive and well-compared study of the human form.

What I think ought to enforce this method is, that it has been the
practice (as may be seen by their drawings) of the great masters in
the art. I will mention a drawing of Raffaelle, "The Dispute of
the Sacrament," the print of which, by Count Cailus, is in every
hand. It appears that he made his sketch from one model; and the
habit he had of drawing exactly from the form before him appears by
his making all the figures with the same cap, such as his model
then happened to wear; so servile a copyist was this great man,
even at a time when he was allowed to be at his highest pitch of

I have seen also academy figures by Annibale Caracci, though he was
often sufficiently licentious in his finished works, drawn with all
the peculiarities of an individual model.

This scrupulous exactness is so contrary to the practice of the
academies, that it is not without great deference that I beg leave
to recommend it to the consideration of the visitors, and submit it
to them, whether the neglect of this method is not one of the
reasons why students so often disappoint expectation, and being
more than boys at sixteen, become less than men at thirty.

In short, the method I recommend can only be detrimental when there
are but few living forms to copy; for then students, by always
drawing from one alone, will by habit be taught to overlook
defects, and mistake deformity for beauty. But of this there is no
danger, since the council has determined to supply the academy with
a variety of subjects; and indeed those laws which they have drawn
up, and which the secretary will presently read for your
confirmation, have in some measure precluded me from saying more
upon this occasion. Instead, therefore, of offering my advice,
permit me to indulge my wishes, and express my hope, that this
institution may answer the expectations of its royal founder; that
the present age may vie in arts with that of Leo X. and that "the
dignity of the dying art" (to make use of an expression of Pliny)
may be revived under the reign of George III.


Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy, on the Distribution
of the Prizes, December 11, I769, by the President.

Gentlemen,--I congratulate you on the honour which you have just
received. I have the highest opinion of your merits, and could
wish to show my sense of them in something which possibly may be
more useful to you than barren praise. I could wish to lead you
into such a course of study as may render your future progress
answerable to your past improvement; and, whilst I applaud you for
what has been done, remind you of how much yet remains to attain

I flatter myself, that from the long experience I have had, and the
unceasing assiduity with which I have pursued those studies, in
which, like you, I have been engaged, I shall be acquitted of
vanity in offering some hints to your consideration. They are
indeed in a great degree founded upon my own mistakes in the same
pursuit. But the history of errors properly managed often shortens
the road to truth. And although no method of study that I can
offer will of itself conduct to excellence, yet it may preserve
industry from being misapplied.

In speaking to you of the theory of the art, I shall only consider
it as it has a relation to the method of your studies.

Dividing the study of painting into three distinct periods, I shall
address you as having passed through the first of them, which is
confined to the rudiments, including a facility of drawing any
object that presents itself, a tolerable readiness in the
management of colours, and an acquaintance with the most simple and
obvious rules of composition.

This first degree of proficiency is, in painting, what grammar is
in literature, a general preparation to whatever species of the art
the student may afterwards choose for his more particular
application. The power of drawing, modelling, and using colours is
very properly called the language of the art; and in this language,
the honours you have just received prove you to have made no
inconsiderable progress.

When the artist is once enabled to express himself with some degree
of correctness, he must then endeavour to collect subjects for
expression; to amass a stock of ideas, to be combined and varied as
occasion may require. He is now in the second period of study, in
which his business is to learn all that has hitherto been known and
done. Having hitherto received instructions from a particular
master, he is now to consider the art itself as his master. He
must extend his capacity to more sublime and general instructions.
Those perfections which lie scattered among various masters are now
united in one general idea, which is henceforth to regulate his
taste and enlarge his imagination. With a variety of models thus
before him, he will avoid that narrowness and poverty of conception
which attends a bigoted admiration of a single master, and will
cease to follow any favourite where he ceases to excel. This
period is, however, still a time of subjection and discipline.
Though the student will not resign himself blindly to any single
authority when he may have the advantage of consulting many, he
must still be afraid of trusting his own judgment, and of deviating
into any track where he cannot find the footsteps of some former

The third and last period emancipates the student from subjection
to any authority but what he shall himself judge to be supported by
reason. Confiding now in his own judgment, he will consider and
separate those different principles to which different modes of
beauty owe their original. In the former period he sought only to
know and combine excellence, wherever it was to be found, into one
idea of perfection; in this he learns, what requires the most
attentive survey and the subtle disquisition, to discriminate
perfections that are incompatible with each other.

He is from this time to regard himself as holding the same rank
with those masters whom he before obeyed as teachers, and as
exercising a sort of sovereignty over those rules which have
hitherto restrained him. Comparing now no longer the performances
of art with each other, but examining the art itself by the
standard of nature, he corrects what is erroneous, supplies what is
scanty, and adds by his own observation what the industry of his
predecessors may have yet left wanting to perfection. Having well
established his judgment, and stored his memory, he may now without
fear try the power of his imagination. The mind that has been thus
disciplined may be indulged in the warmest enthusiasm, and venture
to play on the borders of the wildest extravagance. The habitual
dignity, which long converse with the greatest minds has imparted
to him, will display itself in all his attempts, and he will stand
among his instructors, not as an imitator, but a rival.

These are the different stages of the art. But as I now address
myself particularly to those students who have been this day
rewarded for their happy passage through the first period, I can
with no propriety suppose they want any help in the initiatory
studies. My present design is to direct your view to distant
excellence, and to show you the readiest path that leads to it. Of
this I shall speak with such latitude as may leave the province of
the professor uninvaded, and shall not anticipate those precepts
which it is his business to give and your duty to understand.

It is indisputably evident that a great part of every man's life
must be employed in collecting materials for the exercise of
genius. Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new
combination of those images which have been previously gathered and
deposited in the memory. Nothing can come of nothing. He who has
laid up no materials can produce no combinations.

A student unacquainted with the attempts of former adventurers is
always apt to overrate his own abilities, to mistake the most
trifling excursions for discoveries of moment, and every coast new
to him for a new-found country. If by chance he passes beyond his
usual limits, he congratulates his own arrival at those regions
which they who have steered a better course have long left behind

The productions of such minds are seldom distinguished by an air of
originality: they are anticipated in their happiest efforts; and
if they are found to differ in anything from their predecessors, it
is only in irregular sallies and trifling conceits. The more
extensive therefore your acquaintance is with the works of those
who have excelled the more extensive will be your powers of
invention; and what may appear still more like a paradox, the more
original will be your conceptions. But the difficulty on this
occasion is to determine who ought to be proposed as models of
excellence, and who ought to be considered as the properest guides.

To a young man just arrived in Italy, many of the present painters
of that country are ready enough to obtrude their precepts, and to
offer their own performances as examples of that perfection which
they affect to recommend. The modern, however, who recommends
HIMSELF as a standard, may justly be suspected as ignorant of the
true end, and unacquainted with the proper object of the art which
he professes. To follow such a guide will not only retard the
student, but mislead him.

On whom, then, can he rely, or who shall show him the path that
leads to excellence? The answer is obvious: Those great masters
who have travelled the same road with success are the most likely
to conduct others. The works of those who have stood the test of
ages have a claim to that respect and veneration to which no modern
can pretend. The duration and stability of their fame is
sufficient to evince that it has not been suspended upon the
slender thread of fashion and caprice, but bound to the human heart
by every tie of sympathetic approbation.

There is no danger of studying too much the works of those great
men, but how they may be studied to advantage is an inquiry of
great importance.

Some who have never raised their minds to the consideration of the
real dignity of the art, and who rate the works of an artist in
proportion as they excel, or are defective in the mechanical parts,
look on theory as something that may enable them to talk but not to
paint better, and confining themselves entirely to mechanical
practice, very assiduously toil on in the drudgery of copying, and
think they make a rapid progress while they faithfully exhibit the
minutest part of a favourite picture. This appears to me a very
tedious, and I think a very erroneous, method of proceeding. Of
every large composition, even of those which are most admired, a
great part may be truly said to be common-place. This, though it
takes up much time in copying, conduces little to improvement. I
consider general copying as a delusive kind of industry; the
student satisfies himself with the appearance of doing something;
he falls into the dangerous habit of imitating without selecting,
and of labouring without any determinate object; as it requires no
effort of the mind, he sleeps over his work; and those powers of
invention and composition which ought particularly to be called out
and put in action lie torpid, and lose their energy for want of

It is an observation that all must have made, how incapable those
are of producing anything of their own who have spent much of their
time in making finished copies.

To suppose that the complication of powers, and variety of ideas
necessary to that mind which aspires to the first honours ill the
art of painting, can be obtained by the frigid contemplation of a
few single models, is no less absurd than it would be in him who
wishes to be a poet to imagine that by translating a tragedy he can
acquire to himself sufficient knowledge of the appearances of
nature, the operations of the passions, and the incidents of life.

The great use in copying, if it be at all useful, should seem to be
in learning to colour; yet even colouring will never be perfectly
attained by servilely copying the mould before you. An eye
critically nice can only be formed by observing well-coloured
pictures with attention: and by close inspection, and minute
examination you will discover, at last, the manner of handling, the
artifices of contrast, glazing, and other expedients, by which good
colourists have raised the value of their tints, and by which
nature has been so happily imitated.

I must inform you, however, that old pictures deservedly celebrated
for their colouring are often so changed by dirt and varnish, that
we ought not to wonder if they do not appear equal to their
reputation in the eyes of unexperienced painters, or young
students. An artist whose judgment is matured by long observation,
considers rather what the picture once was, than what it is at
present. He has acquired a power by habit of seeing the brilliancy
of tints through the cloud by which it is obscured. An exact
imitation, therefore, of those pictures, is likely to fill the
student's mind with false opinions, and to send him back a
colourist of his own formation, with ideas equally remote from
nature and from art, from the genuine practice of the masters and
the real appearances of things.

Following these rules, and using these precautions, when you have
clearly and distinctly learned in what good colouring consists, you
cannot do better than have recourse to nature herself, who is
always at hand, and in comparison of whose true splendour the best
coloured pictures are but faint and feeble.

However, as the practice of copying is not entirely to be excluded,
since the mechanical practice of painting is learned in some
measure by it, let those choice parts only be selected which have
recommended the work to notice. If its excellence consists in its
general effect, it would be proper to make slight sketches of the
machinery and general management of the picture. Those sketches
should be kept always by you for the regulation of your style.
Instead of copying the touches of those great masters, copy only
their conceptions. Instead of treading in their footsteps,
endeavour only to keep the same road. Labour to invent on their
general principles and way of thinking. Possess yourself with
their spirit. Consider with yourself how a Michael Angelo or a
Raffaelle would have treated this subject: and work yourself into
a belief that your picture is to be seen and criticised by them
when completed. Even an attempt of this kind will rouse your

But as mere enthusiasm will carry you but a little way, let me
recommend a practice that may be equivalent, and will perhaps more
efficaciously contribute to your advancement, than even the verbal
corrections of those masters themselves, could they be obtained.
What I would propose is, that you should enter into a kind of
competition, by painting a similar subject, and making a companion
to any picture that you consider as a model. After you have
finished your work, place it near the model, and compare them
carefully together. You will then not only see, but feel your own
deficiencies more sensibly than by precepts, or any other means of
instruction. The true principles of painting will mingle with your
thoughts. Ideas thus fixed by sensible objects, will be certain
and definitive; and sinking deep into the mind, will not only be
more just, but more lasting than those presented to you by precepts
only: which will, always be fleeting, variable, and undetermined.

This method of comparing your own efforts with those of some great
master, is indeed a severe and mortifying task, to which none will
submit, but such as have great views, with fortitude sufficient to
forego the gratifications of present vanity for future honour.
When the student has succeeded in some measure to his own
satisfaction, and has felicitated himself on his success, to go
voluntarily to a tribunal where he knows his vanity must be
humbled, and all self-approbation must vanish, requires not only
great resolution, but great humility. To him, however, who has the
Ambition to be a real master, the solid satisfaction which proceeds
from a consciousness of his advancement (of which seeing his own
faults is the first step) will very abundantly compensate for the
mortification of present disappointment. There is, besides, this
alleviating circumstance. Every discovery he makes, every
acquisition of knowledge he attains, seems to proceed from his own
sagacity; and thus he acquires a confidence in himself sufficient
to keep up the resolution of perseverance.

We all must have experienced how lazily, and consequently how
ineffectually, instruction is received when forced upon the mind by
others. Few have been taught to any purpose who have not been
their own teachers. We prefer those instructions which we have
given ourselves, from our affection to the instructor; and they are
more effectual, from being received into the mind at the very time
when it is most open and eager to receive them.

With respect to the pictures that you are to choose for your
models, I could wish that you would take the world's opinion rather
than your own. In other words, I would have you choose those of
established reputation rather than follow your own fancy. If you
should not admire them at first, you will, by endeavouring to
imitate them, find that the world has not been mistaken.

It is not an easy task to point out those various excellences for
your imitation which he distributed amongst the various schools.
An endeavour to do this may perhaps be the subject of some future
discourse. I will, therefore, at present only recommend a model
for style in painting, which is a branch of the art more
immediately necessary to the young student. Style in painting is
the same as in writing, a power over materials, whether words or
colours, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed. And in
this Lodovico Carrache (I mean in his best works) appears to me to
approach the nearest to perfection. His unaffected breadth of
light and shadow, the simplicity of colouring, which holding its
proper rank, does not draw aside the least part of the attention
from the subject, and the solemn effect of that twilight which
seems diffused over his pictures, appear to me to correspond with
grave and dignified subjects, better than the more artificial
brilliancy of sunshine which enlightens the pictures of Titian.
Though Tintoret thought that Titian's colouring was the model of
perfection, and would correspond even with the sublime of Michael
Angelo; and that if Angelo had coloured like Titian, or Titian
designed like Angelo, the world would once have had a perfect

It is our misfortune, however, that those works of Carrache which I
would recommend to the student are not often found out of Bologna.
The "St. Francis in the midst of his Friars," "The
Transfiguration," "The Birth of St. John the Baptist," "The Calling
of St. Matthew," the "St. Jerome," the fresco paintings in the
Zampieri Palace, are all worthy the attention of the student. And
I think those who travel would do well to allot a much greater
portion of their time to that city than it has been hitherto the
custom to bestow.

In this art, as in others, there are many teachers who profess to
show the nearest way to excellence, and many expedients have been
invented by which the toil of study might be saved. But let no man
be seduced to idleness by specious promises. Excellence is never
granted to man but as the reward of labour. It argues, indeed, no
small strength of mind to persevere in habits of industry, without
the pleasure of perceiving those advances; which, like the hand of
a clock, whilst they make hourly approaches to their point, yet
proceed so slowly as to escape observation. A facility of drawing,
like that of playing upon a musical instrument, cannot be acquired
but by an infinite number of acts. I need not, therefore, enforce
by many words the necessity of continual application; nor tell you
that the port-crayon ought to be for ever in your hands. Various
methods will occur to you by which this power may be acquired. I
would particularly recommend that after your return from the
academy (where I suppose your attendance to be constant) you would
endeavour to draw the figure by memory. I will even venture to
add, that by perseverance in this custom, you will become able to
draw the human figure tolerably correct, with as little effort of
the mind as to trace with a pen the letters of the alphabet.

That this facility is not unattainable, some members in this
academy give a sufficient proof. And, be assured, that if this
power is not acquired whilst you are young, there will be no time
for it afterwards: at least, the attempt will be attended with as
much difficulty as those experience who learn to read or write
after they have arrived to the age of maturity.

But while I mention the port-crayon as the student's constant
companion, he must still remember that the pencil is the instrument
by which he must hope to obtain eminence. What, therefore, I wish
to impress upon you is, that whenever an opportunity offers, you
paint your studies instead of drawing them. This will give you
such a facility in using colours, that in time they will arrange
themselves under the pencil, even without the attention of the hand
that conducts it. If one act excluded the other, this advice could
not with any propriety be given. But if painting comprises both
drawing and colouring and if by a short struggle of resolute
industry the same expedition is attainable in painting as in
drawing on paper, I cannot see what objection can justly be made to
the practice; or why that should be done by parts, which may be
done altogether.

If we turn our eyes to the several schools of painting, and
consider their respective excellences, we shall find that those who
excel most in colouring pursued this method. The Venetian and
Flemish schools, which owe much of their fame to colouring, have
enriched the cabinets of the collectors of drawings with very few
examples. Those of Titian, Paul Veronese, Tintoret, and the
Bassans, are in general slight and undetermined. Their sketches on
paper are as rude as their pictures are excellent in regard to
harmony of colouring. Correggio and Barocci have left few, if any,
finished drawings behind them. And in the Flemish school, Rubens
and Vandyke made their designs for the most part either in colours
or in chiaroscuro. It is as common to find studies of the Venetian
and Flemish painters on canvas, as of the schools of Rome and
Florence on paper. Not but that many finished drawings are sold
under the names of those masters. Those, however, are undoubtedly
the productions either of engravers or of their scholars who copied
their works.

These instructions I have ventured to offer from my own experience;
but as they deviate widely from received opinions, I offer them
with diffidence; and when better are suggested, shall retract them
without regret.

There is one precept, however, in which I shall only be opposed by
the vain, the ignorant, and the idle. I am not afraid that I shall
repeat it too often. You must have no dependence on your own
genius. If you have great talents, industry will improve them: if
you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their
deficiency. Nothing is denied to well-directed labour: nothing is
to be obtained without it. Not to enter into metaphysical
discussions on the nature or essence of genius, I will venture to
assert, that assiduity unabated by difficulty, and a disposition
eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit, will produce effects
similar to those which some call the result of natural powers.

Though a man cannot at all times, and in all places, paint or draw,
yet the mind can prepare itself by laying in proper materials, at
all times, and in all places. Both Livy and Plutarch, in
describing Philopoemen, one of the ablest generals of antiquity,
have given us a striking picture of a mind always intent on its
profession, and by assiduity obtaining those excellences which some
all their lives vainly expect from Nature. I shall quote the
passage in Livy at length, as it runs parallel with the practice I
would recommend to the painter, sculptor, or architect.

"Philopoemen was a man eminent for his sagacity and experience in
choosing ground, and in leading armies; to which he formed his mind
by perpetual meditation, in times of peace as well as war. When,
in any occasional journey, he came to a straight difficult passage,
if he was alone, he considered with himself, and if he was in
company he asked his friends what it would be best to do if in this
place they had found an enemy, either in the front, or in the rear,
on the one side, or on the other. 'It might happen,' says he,
'that the enemy to be opposed might come on drawn up in regular
lines, or in a tumultuous body, formed only by the nature of the
place.' He then considered a little what ground he should take;
what number of soldiers he should use, and what arms he should give
them; where he should lodge his carriages, his baggage, and the
defenceless followers of his camp; how many guards, and of what
kind, he should send to defend them; and whether it would be better
to press forward along the pass, or recover by retreat his former
station: he would consider likewise where his camp could most
commodiously be formed; how much ground he should enclose within
his trenches; where he should have the convenience of water; and
where he might find plenty of wood and forage; and when he should
break up his camp on the following day, through what road he could
most safely pass, and in what form he should dispose his troops.
With such thoughts and disquisitions he had from his early years so
exercised his mind, that on these occasions nothing could happen
which he had not been already accustomed to consider."

I cannot help imagining that I see a promising young painter,
equally vigilant, whether at home, or abroad in the streets, or in
the fields. Every object that presents itself is to him a lesson.
He regards all nature with a view to his profession; and combines
her beauties, or corrects her defects. He examines the countenance
of men under the influence of passion; and often catches the most
pleasing hints from subjects of turbulence or deformity. Even bad
pictures themselves supply him with useful documents; and, as
Leonardo da Vinci has observed, he improves upon the fanciful
images that are sometimes seen in the fire, or are accidentally
sketched upon a discoloured wall.

The artist who has his mind thus filled with ideas, and his hand
made expert by practice, works with ease and readiness; whilst he
who would have you believe that he is waiting for the inspirations
of genius, is in reality at a loss how to beam, and is at last
delivered of his monsters with difficulty and pain.

The well-grounded painter, on the contrary, has only maturely to
consider his subject, and all the mechanical parts of his art
follow without his exertion, Conscious of the difficulty of
obtaining what he possesses he makes no pretensions to secrets,
except those of closer application. Without conceiving the
smallest jealousy against others, he is contented that all shall be
as great as himself who are willing to undergo the same fatigue:
and as his pre-eminence depends not upon a trick, he is free from
the painful suspicions of a juggler, who lives in perpetual fear
lest his trick should be discovered.


Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution
of the Prizes, December, 14, 1770, by the President

Gentlemen,--It is not easy to speak with propriety to so many
students of different ages and different degrees of advancement.
The mind requires nourishment adapted to its growth; and what may
have promoted our earlier efforts, might, retard us in our nearer
approaches to perfection.

The first endeavours of a young painter, as I have remarked in a
former discourse, must be employed in the attainment of mechanical
dexterity, and confined to the mere imitation of the object before
him. Those who have advanced beyond the rudiments, may, perhaps,
find advantage in reflecting on the advice which I have likewise
given them, when I recommended the diligent study of the works of
our great predecessors; but I at the same time endeavoured to guard
them against an implicit submission to the authority of any one
master, however excellent; or by a strict imitation of his manner,
to preclude ourselves from the abundance and variety of nature. I
will now add that nature herself is not to be too closely copied.
There are excellences in the art of painting, beyond what is
commonly called the imitation of nature: and these excellences I
wish to point out. The students who, having passed through the
initiatory exercises, are more advanced in the art, and who, sure
of their hand, have leisure to exert their understanding, must now
be told that a mere copier of nature can never produce anything
great; can never raise and enlarge the conceptions, or warm the
heart of the spectator.

The wish of the genuine painter must be more extensive: instead of
endeavouring to amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his
imitations, he must endeavour to improve them by the grandeur of
his ideas; instead of seeking praise, by deceiving the superficial
sense of the spectator, he must strive for fame, by captivating the

The principle now laid down, that the perfection of this art does
not consist in mere imitation, is far from being new or singular.
It is, indeed, supported by the general opinion of the enlightened
part of mankind. The poets, orators, and rhetoricians of
antiquity, are continually enforcing this position, that all the
arts receive their perfection from an ideal beauty, superior to
what is to be found in individual nature. They are ever referring
to the practice of the painters and sculptors of their times,
particularly Phidias (the favourite artist of antiquity), to
illustrate their assertions. As if they could not sufficiently
express their admiration of his genius by what they knew, they have
recourse to poetical enthusiasm. They call it inspiration; a gift
from heaven. The artist is supposed to have ascended the celestial
regions, to furnish his mind with this perfect idea of beauty.
"He," says Proclus, "who takes for his model such forms as nature
produces, and confines himself to an exact imitation of them, will
never attain to what is perfectly beautiful. For the works of
nature are full of disproportion, and fall very short of the true
standard of beauty. So that Phidias, when he formed his Jupiter,
did not copy any object ever presents to his sight; but
contemplated only that image which he had conceived in his mind
from Homer's description." And thus Cicero, speaking of the same
Phidias: "Neither did this artist," says he, "when he carved the
image of Jupiter or Minerva, set before him any one human figure as
a pattern, which he was to copy; but having a more perfect idea of
beauty fixed in his mind, this he steadily contemplated, and to the
imitation of this all his skill and labour were directed.

The moderns are not less convinced than the ancients of this
superior power existing in the art; nor less conscious of its
effects. Every language has adopted terms expressive of this
excellence. The Gusto grande of the Italians; the Beau ideal of
the French and the GREAT STYLE, GENIUS, and TASTE among the
English, are but different appellations of the same thing. It is
this intellectual dignity, they say, that ennobles the painter's
art; that lays the line between him and the mere mechanic; and
produces those great effects in an instant, which eloquence and
poetry, by slow and repeated efforts, are scarcely able to attain.

Such is the warmth with which both the ancients and moderns speak
of this divine principle of the art; but, as I have formerly
observed, enthusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge.
Though a student by such praise may have his attention roused, and
a desire excited, of running in this great career, yet it is
possible that what has been said to excite, may only serve to deter
him. He examines his own mind, and perceives there nothing of that
divine inspiration with which he is told so many others have been
favoured. He never travelled to heaven to gather new ideas; and he
finds himself possessed of no other qualifications than what mere
common observation and a plain understanding can confer. Thus he
becomes gloomy amidst the splendour of figurative declamation, and
thinks it hopeless to pursue an object which he supposes out of the
reach of human industry.

But on this, as upon many other occasions, we ought to distinguish
how much is to be given to enthusiasm, and how much to reason. We
ought to allow for, and we ought to commend, that strength of vivid
expression which is necessary to convey, in its full force, the
highest sense of the most complete effect of art; taking care at
the same time not to lose in terms of vague admiration that
solidity and truth of principle upon which alone we can reason, and
may be enabled to practise.

It is not easy to define in what this great style consists; nor to
describe, by words, the proper means of acquiring it, if the mind
of the student should be at all capable of such an acquisition.
Could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer
taste and genius. But though there neither are, nor can be, any
precise invariable rules for the exercise or the acquisition of
those great qualities, yet we may as truly say that they always
operate in proportion to our attention in observing the works of
nature, to our skill in selecting, and to our care in digesting,
methodising, and comparing our observations. There are many
beauties in our art, that seem, at first, to lie without the reach
of precept, and yet may easily be reduced to practical principles.
Experience is all in all; but it is not every one who profits by
experience; and most people err, not so much from want of capacity
to find their object, as from not knowing what object to pursue.
This great ideal perfection and beauty are not to be sought in the
heavens, but upon the earth. They are about us, and upon every
side of us. But the power of discovering what is deformed in
nature, or in other words, what is particular and uncommon, can be
acquired only by experience; and the whole beauty and grandeur of
the art consists, in my opinion, in being able to get above all
singular forms, local customs, particularities, and details of
every kind.

All the objects which are exhibited to our view by nature, upon
close examination will be found to have their blemishes and
defects. The most beautiful forms have something about them like
weakness, minuteness, or imperfection. But it is not every eye
that perceives these blemishes. It must be an eye long used to the
contemplation and comparison of these forms; and which, by a long
habit of observing what any set of objects of the same kind have in
common, that alone can acquire the power of discerning what each
wants in particular. This long laborious comparison should be the
first study of the painter who aims at the greatest style. By this
means, he acquires a just idea of beautiful forms; he corrects
nature by herself, her imperfect state by her more perfect. His
eye being enabled to distinguish the accidental deficiencies,
excrescences, and deformities of things from their general figures,
he makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than any
one original; and what may seem a paradox, he learns to design
naturally by drawing his figures unlike to any one object. This
idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the
ideal beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of
genius are conducted. By this Phidias acquired his fame. He
wrought upon a sober principle what has so much excited the
enthusiasm of the world; and by this method you, who have courage
to tread the same path, may acquire equal reputation.

This is the idea which has acquired, and which seems to have a
right to the epithet of Divine; as it may be said to preside, like
a supreme judge, over all the productions of nature; appearing to
be possessed of the will and intention of the Creator, as far as
they regard the external form of living beings.

When a man once possesses this idea in its perfection, there is no
danger but that he will he sufficiently warmed by it himself, and
be able to warm and ravish every one else.

Thus it is from a reiterated experience, and a close comparison of
the objects in nature, that an artist becomes possessed of the idea
of that central form, if I may so express it, from which every
deviation is deformity. But the investigation of this form I grant
is painful, and I know but of one method of shortening the road;
this is, by a careful study of the works of the ancient sculptors;
who, being indefatigable in the school of nature, have left models
of that perfect form behind them, which an artist would prefer as
supremely beautiful, who had spent his whole life in that single
contemplation. But if industry carried them thus far, may not you
also hope for the same reward from the same labour? We have the
same school opened to us that was opened to them; for nature denies
her instructions to none who desire to become her pupils.

To the principle I have laid down, that the idea of beauty in each
species of beings is invariably one, it may be objected that in
every particular species there are various central forms, which are
separate and distinct from each other, and yet are undeniably
beautiful; that in the human figure, for instance, the beauty of
the Hercules is one, of the gladiator another, of the Apollo
another, which makes so many different ideas of beauty.

It is true, indeed, that these figures are each perfect in their
kind, though of different characters and proportions; but still
none of them is the representation of an individual, but of a
class. And as there is one general form, which, as I have said,
belongs to the human kind at large, so in each of these classes
there is one common idea and central form, which is the abstract of
the various individual forms belonging to that class. Thus, though
the forms of childhood and age differ exceedingly, there is a
common form in childhood, and a common form in age,--which is the
more perfect, as it is more remote from all peculiarities. But I
must add further, that though the most perfect forms of each of the
general divisions of the human figure are ideal, and superior to
any individual form of that class, yet the highest perfection of
the human figure is not to be found in any one of them. It is not
in the Hercules, nor in the gladiator, nor in the Apollo; but in
that form which is taken from them all, and which partakes equally
of the activity of the gladiator, of the delicacy of the Apollo,
and of the muscular strength of the Hercules. For perfect beauty
in any species must combine all the characters which are beautiful
in that species. It cannot consist in any one to the exclusion of
the rest: no one, therefore, must be predominant, that no one may
be deficient.

The knowledge of these different characters, and the power of
separating and distinguishing them, is undoubtedly necessary to the
painter, who is to vary his compositions with figures of various
forms and proportions, though he is never to lose sight of the
general idea of perfection in each kind.

There is, likewise, a kind of symmetry or proportion, which may
properly be said to belong to deformity. A figure lean or
corpulent, tall or short, though deviating from beauty, may still
have a certain union of the various parts, which may contribute to
make them, on the whole, not unpleasing. When the artist has by
diligent attention acquired a clear and distinct idea of beauty and
symmetry; when he has reduced the variety of nature to the abstract
idea; his next task will be to become acquainted with the genuine
habits of nature, as distinguished from those of fashion. For in
the same manner, and on the same principles, as he has acquired the
knowledge of the real forms of nature, distinct from accidental
deformity, he must endeavour to separate simple chaste nature from
those adventitious, those affected and forced airs or actions, with
which she is loaded by modern education.

Perhaps I cannot better explain what I mean than by reminding you
of what was taught us by the Professor of Anatomy, in respect to
the natural position and movement of the feet. He observed that
the fashion of turning, them outwards was contrary to the intent of
nature, as might be seen from the structure of the bones, and from
the weakness that proceeded from that manner of standing. To this
we may add the erect position of the head, the projection of the
chest, the walking with straight knees, and many such actions,
which are merely the result of fashion, and what nature never
warranted, as we are sure that we have been taught them when

I have mentioned but a few of those instances, in which vanity or
caprice have contrived to distort and disfigure the human form;
your own recollection will add to these a thousand more of ill-
understood methods, that have been practised to disguise nature,
among our dancing-masters, hair-dressers, and tailors, in their
various schools of deformity.

However the mechanic and ornamental arts may sacrifice to fashion,
she must be entirely excluded from the art of painting; the painter
must never mistake this capricious changeling for the genuine
offspring of nature; he must divest himself of all prejudices in
favour of his age or country; he must disregard all local and
temporary ornaments, and look only on those general habits that are
everywhere and always the same. He addresses his works to the
people of every country and every age; he calls upon posterity to
be his spectators, and says with Zeuxis, In aeternitatem pingo.

The neglect of separating modern fashions from the habits of
nature, leads to that ridiculous style which has been practised by
some painters who have given to Grecian heroes the airs and graces
practised in the court of Louis XIV.; an absurdity almost as great
as it would have been to have dressed them after the fashion of
that court.

To avoid this error, however, and to retain the true simplicity of
nature, is a task more difficult than at first sight it may appear.
The prejudices in favour of the fashions and customs that we have
been used to, and which are justly called a second nature, make it
too often difficult to distinguish that which is natural from that
which is the result of education; they frequently even give a
predilection in favour of the artificial mode; and almost every one
is apt to be guided by those local prejudices who has not chastised
his mind, and regulated the instability of his affections, by the
eternal invariable idea of nature.

Here, then, as before, we must have recourse to the ancients as
instructors. It is from a careful study of their works that you
will be enabled to attain to the real simplicity of nature; they
will suggest many observations, which would probably escape you, if
your study were confined to nature alone. And, indeed, I cannot
help suspecting, that in this instance the ancients had an easier
task than the moderns. They had, probably, little or nothing to
unlearn, as their manners were nearly approaching to this desirable
simplicity; while the modern artist, before he can see the truth of
things, is obliged to remove a veil, with which the fashion of the
times has thought proper to cover her.

Having gone thus far in our investigation of the great style in
painting; if we now should suppose that the artist has formed the
true idea of beauty, which enables him to give his works a correct
and perfect design; if we should suppose also that he has acquired
a knowledge of the unadulterated habits of nature, which gives him
simplicity; the rest of his talk is, perhaps, less than is
generally imagined. Beauty and simplicity have so great a share in
the composition of a great style, that he who has acquired them has
little else to learn. It must not, indeed, be forgot that there is
a nobleness of conception, which goes beyond anything in the mere
exhibition, even of perfect form; there is an art of animating and
dignifying the figures with intellectual grandeur, of impressing
the appearance of philosophic wisdom or heroic virtue. This can
only be acquired by him that enlarges the sphere of his
understanding by a variety of knowledge, and warms his imagination
with the best productions of ancient and modern poetry.

A hand thus exercised, and a mind thus instructed, will bring the
art to a higher degree of excellence than, perhaps, it has hitherto
attained in this country. Such a student will disdain the humbler
walks of painting, which, however profitable, can never assure him
a permanent reputation. He will leave the meaner artist servilely
to suppose that those are the best pictures which are most likely
to deceive the spectator. He will permit the lower painter, like
the florist or collector of shells, to exhibit the minute
discriminations which distinguish one object of the same species
from another; while he, like the philosopher, will consider nature
in the abstract, and represent in every one of his figures the
character of its species.

If deceiving the eye were the only business of the art, there is no
doubt, indeed, but the minute painter would be more apt to succeed:
but it is not the eye, it is the mind, which the painter of genius
desires to address; nor will he waste a moment upon these smaller
objects, which only serve to catch the sense, to divide the
attention, and to counteract his great design of speaking to the

This is the ambition I could wish to excite in your minds; and the
object I have had in my view, throughout this discourse, is that
one great idea which gives to painting its true dignity, that
entitles it to the name of a Liberal Art, and ranks it as a sister
of poetry.

It may possibly have happened to many young students whose
application was sufficient to overcome all difficulties, and whose
minds were capable of embracing the most extensive views, that they
have, by a wrong direction originally given, spent their lives in
the meaner walks of painting, without ever knowing there was a
nobler to pursue. "Albert Durer," as Vasari has justly remarked,
"would probably have been one of the first painters of his age (and
he lived in an era of great artists) had he been initiated into
those great principles of the art which were so well understood and
practised by his contemporaries in Italy. But unluckily, having
never seen or heard of any other manner, he considered his own,
without doubt, as perfect."

As for the various departments of painting, which do not presume to
make such high pretensions, they are many. None of them are
without their merit, though none enter into competition with this
great universal presiding idea of the art. The painters who have
applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters,
and who express with precision the various shades of passion, as
they are exhibited by vulgar minds (such as we see in the works of
Hogarth) deserve great praise; but as their genius has been
employed on low and confined subjects, the praise that we give must
be as limited as its object. The merrymaking or quarrelling of the
Boors of Teniers; the same sort of productions of Brouwer, or
Ostade, are excellent in their kind; and the excellence and its
praise will be in proportion, as, in those limited subjects and
peculiar forms, they introduce more or less of the expression of
those passions, as they appear in general and more enlarged nature.
This principle may be applied to the battle pieces of Bourgognone,
the French gallantries of Watteau, and even beyond the exhibition
of animal life, to the landscapes of Claude Lorraine, and the sea-
views of Vandervelde. All these painters have, in general, the
same right, in different degrees, to the name of a painter, which a
satirist, an epigrammatist, a sonnetteer, a writer of pastorals, or
descriptive poetry, has to that of a poet.

In the same rank, and, perhaps, of not so great merit, is the cold
painter of portraits. But his correct and just imitation of his
object has its merit. Even the painter of still life, whose
highest ambition is to give a minute representation of every part
of those low objects, which he sets before him, deserves praise in
proportion to his attainment; because no part of this excellent
art, so much the ornament of polished life, is destitute of value
and use. These, however, are by no means the views to which the
mind of the student ought to be PRIMARILY directed. By aiming at
better things, if from particular inclination, or from the taste of
the time and place he lives in, or from necessity, or from failure
in the highest attempts, he is obliged to descend lower; he will
bring into the lower sphere of art a grandeur of composition and
character that will raise and ennoble his works far above their
natural rank.

A man is not weak, though he may not be able to wield the club of
Hercules; nor does a man always practise that which he esteems the
beat; but does that which he can best do. In moderate attempts,
there are many walks open to the artist. But as the idea of beauty
is of necessity but one, so there can be but one great mode of
painting; the leading principle of which I have endeavoured to

I should be sorry if what is here recommended should be at all
understood to countenance a careless or indetermined manner of
painting. For though the painter is to overlook the accidental
discriminations of nature, he is to pronounce distinctly, and with
precision, the general forms of things. A firm and determined
outline is one of the characteristics of the great style in
painting; and, let me add, that he who possesses the knowledge of
the exact form, that every part of nature ought to have, will be
fond of expressing that knowledge with correctness and precision in
all his works.

To conclude: I have endeavoured to reduce the idea of beauty to
general principles. And I had the pleasure to observe that the
professor of painting proceeded in the same method, when he showed
you that the artifice of contrast was founded but on one principle.
And I am convinced that this is the only means of advancing
science, of clearing the mind from a confused heap of contradictory
observations, that do but perplex and puzzle the student when he
compares them, or misguide him if he gives himself up to their
authority; but bringing them under one general head can alone give
rest and satisfaction to an inquisitive mind.


Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution
of the Prizes, December 10, 1771, by the President.

Gentlemen,--The value and rank of every art is in proportion to the
mental labour employed in it, or the mental pleasure produced by
it. As this principle is observed or neglected, our profession
becomes either a liberal art or a mechanical trade. In the hands
of one man it makes the highest pretensions, as it is addressed to
the noblest faculties, In those of another it is reduced to a mere
matter of ornament, and the painter has but the humble province of
furnishing our apartments with elegance.

This exertion of mind, which is the only circumstance that truly
ennobles our art, makes the great distinction between the Roman and
Venetian schools. I have formerly observed that perfect form is
produced by leaving out particularities, and retaining only general
ideas. I shall now endeavour to show that this principle, which I
have proved to be metaphysically just, extends itself to every part
of the art; that it gives what is called the grand style to
invention, to composition, to expression, and even to colouring and

Invention in painting does not imply the invention of the subject,
for that is commonly supplied by the poet or historian. With
respect to the choice, no subject can be proper that is not
generally interesting. It ought to be either some eminent instance
of heroic action or heroic suffering. There must be something
either in the action or in the object in which men are universally
concerned, and which powerfully strikes upon the public sympathy.

Strictly speaking, indeed, no subject can be of universal, hardly
can it be of general concern: but there are events and characters
so popularly known in those countries where our art is in request,
that they may be considered as sufficiently general for all our
purposes. Such are the great events of Greek and Roman fable and
history, which early education and the usual course of reading have
made familiar and interesting to all Europe, without being degraded
by the vulgarism of ordinary life in any country. Such, too, are
the capital subjects of Scripture history, which, besides their
general notoriety, become venerable by their connection with our

As it is required that the subject selected should be a general
one, it is no less necessary that it should be kept unembarrassed
with whatever may any way serve to divide the attention of the
spectator. Whenever a story is related, every man forms a picture
in his mind of the action and the expression of the persons
employed. The power of representing this mental picture in canvas
is what we call invention in a painter. And as in the conception
of this ideal picture the mind does not enter into the minute
peculiarities of the dress, furniture, or scene of action, so when
the painter comes to represent it he contrives those little
necessary concomitant circumstances in such a manner that they
shall strike the spectator no more than they did himself in his
first conception of the story.

I am very ready to allow that some circumstances of minuteness and
particularity frequently tend to give an air of truth to a piece,
and to interest the spectator in an extraordinary manner. Such
circumstances, therefore, cannot wholly be rejected; but if there
be anything in the art which requires peculiar nicety of
discernment, it is the disposition of these minute circumstantial
parts which, according to the judgment employed in the choice,
become so useful to truth or so injurious to grandeur.

However, the usual and most dangerous error is on the side of
minuteness, and, therefore, I think caution most necessary where
most have failed. The general idea constitutes real excellence.
All smaller things, however perfect in their way, are to be
sacrificed without mercy to the greater. The painter will not
inquire what things may be admitted without much censure. He will
not think it enough to show that they may be there; he will show
that they must be there, that their absence would render his
picture maimed and defective.

Thus, though to the principal group a second or third be added, and
a second and third mass of light, care must be yet taken that these
subordinate actions and lights, neither each in particular, nor all
together, come into any degree of competition with the principal;
they should make a part of that whole which would be imperfect
without them. To every part of painting this rule may be applied.
Even in portraits, the grace and, we may add, the likeness,
consists more in taking the general air than in observing the
effect similitude of every feature.

Thus figures must have a ground whereon to stand; they must be
clothed, there must be a background, there must be light and
shadow; but none of these ought to appear to have taken up any part
of the artist's attention. They should be so managed as not even
to catch that of the spectator. We know well enough, when we
analyse a piece, the difficulty and the subtlety with which an
artist adjusts the background, drapery, and masses of light; we
know that a considerable part of the grace and effect of his
picture depends upon them; but this art is so much concealed, even
to a judicious eye, that no remains of any of these subordinate
parts occur to memory when the picture is not present.

The great end of the art is to strike the imagination. The painter
is, therefore, to make no ostentation of the means by which this is
done; the spectator is only to feel the result in his bosom. An
inferior artist is unwilling that any part of his industry should
be lost upon the spectator. He takes as much pains to discover, as
the greater artist does to conceal, the marks of his subordinate
assiduity. In works of the lower kind everything appears studied
and encumbered; it is all boastful art and open affectation. The
ignorant often part from such pictures with wonder in their mouths,
and indifference in their hearts.

But it is not enough in invention that the artist should restrain
and keep under all the inferior parts of his subject; he must
sometimes deviate from vulgar and strict historical truth in
pursuing the grandeur of his design.

How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and
represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere
matter of fact, may be seen in the cartoons of Raffaelle. In all
the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he
has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much
dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving yet we are
expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable
appearance; and of St. Paul in particular, we are told by himself,
that his bodily presence was mean. Alexander is said to have been
of a low stature: a painter ought not so to represent him.
Agesilaus was low, lame, and of a mean appearance. None of these
defects ought to appear in a piece of which he is the hero. In
conformity to custom, I call this part of the art history painting;
it ought to be called poetical, as in reality it is.

All this is not falsifying any fact; it is taking an allowed
poetical licence. A painter of portraits retains the individual
likeness; a painter of history shows the man by showing his
actions. A painter must compensate the natural deficiencies of his
art. He has but one sentence to utter, but one moment to exhibit.
He cannot, like the poet or historian, expatiate, and impress the
mind with great veneration for the character of the hero or saint
he represents, though he lets us know at the same time that the
saint was deformed, or the hero lame. The painter has no other
means of giving an idea of the dignity of the mind, but by that
external appearance which grandeur of thought does generally,
though not always, impress on the countenance, and by that
correspondence of figure to sentiment and situation which all men
wish, but cannot command. The painter, who may in this one
particular attain with ease what others desire in vain, ought to
give all that he possibly can, since there are so many
circumstances of true greatness that he cannot give at all. He
cannot make his hero talk like a great man; he must make him look
like one. For which reason he ought to be well studied in the
analysis of those circumstances which constitute dignity of
appearance in real life.

As in invention, so likewise in, expression, care must be taken not
to run into particularities, Those expressions alone should be
given to the figures which their respective situations generally
produce. Nor is this enough; each person should also have that
expression which men of his rank generally exhibit. The joy or the
grief of a character of dignity is not to be expressed in the same
manner as a similar passion in a vulgar face. Upon this principle
Bernini, perhaps, may be subject to censure. This sculptor, in
many respects admirable, has given a very mean expression to his
statue of David, who is represented as just going to throw the
stone from the sling; and in order to give it the expression of
energy he has made him biting his under-lip. This expression is
far from being general, and still farther from being dignified. He
might have seen it in an instance or two, and he mistook accident
for universality.

With respect to colouring, though it may appear at first a part of
painting merely mechanical, yet it still has its rules, and those
grounded upon that presiding principle which regulates both the
great and the little in the study of a painter. By this, the first
effect of the picture is produced; and as this is performed the
spectator, as he walks the gallery, will stop, or pass along. To
give a general air of grandeur at first view, all trifling or
artful play of little lights or an attention to a variety of tints
is to be avoided; a quietness and simplicity must reign over the
whole work; to which a breadth of uniform and simple colour will
very much contribute. Grandeur of effect is produced by two
different ways, which seem entirely opposed to each other. One is,
by reducing the colours to little more than chiaroscuro, which was
often the practice of the Bolognian schools; and the other, by
making the colours very distinct and forcible, such as we see in
those of Rome and Florence; but still, the presiding principle of
both those manners is simplicity. Certainly, nothing can be more
simple than monotony, and the distinct blue, red, and yellow
colours which are seen in the draperies of the Roman and Florentine
schools, though they have not that kind of harmony which is
produced by a variety of broken and transparent colours, have that
effect of grandeur that was intended. Perhaps these distinct
colours strike the mind more forcibly, from there not being any
great union between them; as martial music, which is intended to
rouse the noble passions, has its effect from the sudden and
strongly marked transitions from one note to another, which that
style of music requires; whilst in that which is intended to move
the softer passions the notes imperceptibly melt into one another.

In the same manner as the historical painter never enters into the
detail of colours, so neither does he debase his conceptions with
minute attention to the discriminations of drapery. It is the
inferior style that marks the variety of stuffs. With him, the
clothing is neither woollen, nor linen, nor silk, satin, or velvet:
it is drapery; it is nothing more. The art of disposing the
foldings of the drapery make a very considerable part of the
painter's study. To make it merely natural is a mechanical
operation, to which neither genius or taste are required; whereas,
it requires the nicest judgment to dispose the drapery, so that the
folds have an easy communication, and gracefully follow each other,
with such natural negligence as to look like the effect of chance,
and at the same time show the figure under it to the utmost

Carlo Maratti was of opinion that the disposition of drapery was a
more difficult art than even that of drawing the human figure; that
a student might be more easily taught the latter than the former;
as the rules of drapery, he said, could not be so well ascertained
as those for delineating a correct form, This, perhaps, is a proof
how willingly we favour our own peculiar excellence. Carlo Maratti
is said to have valued himself particularly upon his skill in this
part of the art yet in him the disposition appears so artificial,
that he is inferior to Raffaelle, even in that which gave him his
best claim to reputation

Such is the great principle by which we must be directed in the
nobler branches of our art. Upon this principle the Roman, the
Florentine, the Bolognese schools, have formed their practice; and
by this they have deservedly obtained the highest praise. These
are the three great schools of the world in the epic style. The
best of the French school, Poussin, Le Sueur, and Le Brun, have
formed themselves upon these models, and consequently may be said,
though Frenchmen, to be a colony from the Roman school. Next to
these, but in a very different style of excellence, we may rank the
Venetian, together with the Flemish and the Dutch schools, all
professing to depart from the great purposes of painting, and
catching at applause by inferior qualities.

I am not ignorant that some will censure me for placing the
Venetians in this inferior class, and many of the warmest admirers
of painting will think them unjustly degraded; but I wish not to be
misunderstood. Though I can by no means allow them to hold any
rank with the nobler schools of painting, they accomplished
perfectly the thing they attempted. But as mere elegance is their
principal object, as they seem more willing to dazzle than to
affect, it can be no injury to them to suppose that their practice
is useful only to its proper end. But what may heighten the
elegant may degrade the sublime. There is a simplicity, and I may
add, severity, in the great manner, which is, I am afraid, almost
incompatible with this comparatively sensual style.

Tintoret, Paul Veronese, and others of the Venetian schools, seem
to have painted with no other purpose than to be admired for their
skill and expertness in the mechanism of painting, and to make a
parade of that art which, as I before observed, the higher style
requires its followers to conceal.

In a conference of the French Academy, at which were present Le
Brun, Sebastian Bourdon, and all the eminent artists of that age,
one of the academicians desired to have their opinion on the
conduct of Paul Veronese, who, though a painter of great
consideration, had, contrary to the strict rules of art, in his
picture of Perseus and Andromeda, represented the principal figure
in shade. To this question no satisfactory answer was then given.
But I will venture to say, that if they had considered the class of
the artist, and ranked him as an ornamental painter, there would
have been no difficulty in answering: "It was unreasonable to
expect what was never intended. His intention was solely to
produce an effect of light and Shadow; everything was to be
sacrificed to that intent, and the capricious composition of that
picture suited very well with the style he professed."

Young minds are indeed too apt to be captivated by this splendour
of style, and that of the Venetians will be particularly pleasing;
for by them all those parts of the art that give pleasure to the
eye or sense have been cultivated with care, and carried to the
degree nearest to perfection. The powers exerted in the mechanical
part of the art have been called the language of painters; but we
must say, that it is but poor eloquence which only shows that the
orator can talk. Words should be employed as the means, not as the
end: language is the instrument, conviction is the work.

The language of painting must indeed be allowed these masters; but
even in that they have shown more copiousness than choice, and more
luxuriancy than judgment. If we consider the uninteresting
subjects of their invention, or at least the uninteresting manner
in which they are treated; if we attend to their capricious
composition, their violent and affected contrasts, whether of
figures, or of light and shadow, the richness of their drapery,
and, at the same time, the mean effect which the discrimination of
stuffs gives to their pictures; if to these we add their total
inattention to expression, and then reflect on the conceptions and
the learning of Michael Angelo, or the simplicity of Raffaelle, we
can no longer dwell on the comparison. Even in colouring, if we
compare the quietness and chastity of the Bolognese pencil to the
bustle and tumult that fills every part of, a Venetian picture,
without the least attempt to interest the passions, their boasted
art will appear a mere struggle without effect; an empty tale told
by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Such as suppose that the great style might happily be blended with
the ornamental, that the simple, grave, and majestic dignity of
Raffaelle could unite with the glow and bustle of a Paulo or
Tintoret, are totally mistaken. The principles by which each are
attained are so contrary to each other, that they seem, in my
opinion, incompatible, and as impossible to exist together, as to
unite in the mind at the same time the most sublime ideas and the
lowest sensuality.

The subjects of the Venetian painters are mostly such as give them
an opportunity of introducing a great number of figures, such as
feasts, marriages, and processions, public martyrdoms, or miracles.
I can easily conceive that Paul Veronese, if he were asked, would
say that no subject was proper for an historical picture but such
as admitted at least forty figures; for in a less number, he would
assert, there could be no opportunity of the painter's showing his
art in composition, his dexterity of managing and disposing the
masses of light, and groups of figures, and of introducing a
variety of Eastern dresses and characters in their rich stuffs.

But the thing is very different with a pupil of the greater
schools. Annibale Caracci thought twelve figures sufficient for
any story: he conceived that more would contribute to no end but
to fill space; that they would, be but cold spectators of the
general action, or, to use his own expression, that they would be
figures to be let. Besides, it is impossible for a picture
composed of so many parts to have that effect, so indispensably
necessary to grandeur, of one complete whole. However
contradictory it may be in geometry, it is true in taste, that many
little things will not make a great one. The sublime impresses the
mind at once with one great idea; it is a single blow: the elegant
indeed may be produced by a repetition, by an accumulation of many
minute circumstances.

However great the difference is between the composition of the
Venetian and the rest of the Italian schools, there is full as
great a disparity in the effect of their pictures as produced by
colours. And though in this respect the Venetians must be allowed
extraordinary skill, yet even that skill, as they have employed it,
will but ill correspond with the great style. Their colouring is
not only too brilliant, but, I will venture to say, too harmonious
to produce that solidity, steadiness, and simplicity of effect
which heroic subjects require, and which simple or grave colours
only can give to a work. That they are to be cautiously studied by
those who are ambitious of treading the great walk of history is
confirmed, if it wants confirmation, by the greatest of all
authorities, Michael Angelo. This wonderful man, after having seen
a picture by Titian, told Vasari, who accompanied him, "that he
liked much his colouring and manner; but then he added, that it was
a pity the Venetian painters did not learn to draw correctly in
their early youth, and adopt a better manner of study."

By this it appears that the principal attention of the Venetian
painters, in the opinion of Michael Angelo, seemed to be engrossed
by the study of colours, to the neglect of the ideal beauty of
form, or propriety of expression. But if general censure was given
to that school from the sight of a picture of Titian, how much more
heavily, and more justly, would the censure fall on Paulo Veronese,
or more especially on Tintoret? And here I cannot avoid citing
Vasari's opinion of the style and manner of Tintoret. "Of all the
extraordinary geniuses," says he, "that have ever practised the art
of painting, for wild, capricious, extravagant, and fantastical
inventions, for furious impetuosity and boldness in the execution
of his work, there is none like Tintoret; his strange whims are
even beyond extravagance; and his works seem to be produced rather
by chance than in consequence of any previous design, as if he
wanted to convince the world that, the art was a trifle, and of the
most easy attainment."

For my own part, when I speak of the Venetian painters, I wish to
be understood to mean Paulo Veronese and Tintoret, to the exclusion
of Titian; for though his style is not so pure as that of many
other of the Italian schools, yet there is a sort of senatorial
dignity about him, which, however awkward in his imitators, seems
to become him exceedingly. His portraits alone, from the nobleness
and simplicity of character which he always gave them, will entitle
him to the greatest respect, as he undoubtedly stands in the first
rank in this branch of the art.

It is not with Titian, but with the seducing qualities of the two
former, that I could wish to caution you, against being too much
captivated. These are the persons who may be said to have
exhausted all the powers of florid eloquence, to debauch the young
and unexperienced, and have, without doubt, been the cause of
turning off the attention of the connoisseur and of the patron of
art, as well as that of the painter, from those higher excellences
of which the art is capable, and which ought to be required in
every considerable production. By them, and their imitators, a
style merely ornamental has been disseminated throughout all
Europe. Rubens carried it to Flanders, Voet to France, and Luca
Giordano to Spain and Naples.

The Venetian is indeed the most splendid of the schools of
elegance; and it is not without reason that the best performances
in this lower school are valued higher than the second-rate
performances of those above them; for every picture has value when
it has a decided character, and is excellent in its kind. But the
student must take care not to be so much dazzled with this
splendour as to be tempted to imitate what must ultimately lead
from perfection. Poussin, whose eye was always steadily fixed on
the sublime, has been often heard to say, "That a particular
attention to colouring was an obstacle to the student in his
progress to the great end and design of the art; and that he who
attaches himself to this principal end will acquire by practice a
reasonably good method of colouring."

Though it be allowed that elaborate harmony of colouring, a
brilliancy of tints, a soft and gradual transition from one to
another, present to the eye what an harmonious concert of music
does to the ear, it must be remembered that painting is not merely
a gratification of the sight. Such excellence, though properly
cultivated where nothing higher than elegance is intended, is weak
and unworthy of regard, when the work aspires to grandeur and

The same reasons that have been urged why a mixture of the Venetian
style cannot improve the great style will hold good in regard to
the Flemish and Dutch schools. Indeed, the Flemish school, of
which Rubens is the head, was formed upon that of the Venetian;
like them, he took his figures too much from the people before him.
But it must be allowed in favour of the Venetians that he was more
gross than they, and carried all their mistaken methods to a far
greater excess. In the Venetian school itself, where they all err
from the same cause, there is a difference in the effect. The
difference between Paulo and Bassano seems to be only that one
introduced Venetian gentlemen into his pictures, and the other the
boors of the district of Bassano, and called them patriarchs and

The painters of the Dutch school have still more locality. With
them, a history piece is properly a portrait of themselves; whether
they describe the inside or outside of their houses, we have their
own people engaged in their own peculiar occupations, working or
drinking, playing or fighting. The circumstances that enter into a
picture of this kind are so far from giving a general view of human
life that they exhibit all the minute particularities of a nation
differing in several respects from the rest of mankind. Yet, let
them have their share of more humble praise. The painters of this
school are excellent in their own way; they are only ridiculous
when they attempt general history on their own narrow principles,
and debase great events by the meanness of their characters.

Some inferior dexterity, some extraordinary mechanical power, is
apparently that from which they seek distinction. Thus, we see,
that school alone has the custom of representing candle-light, not
as it really appears to us by night, but red, as it would
illuminate objects to a spectator by day. Such tricks, however
pardonable in the little style, where petty effects are the sole
end, are inexcusable in the greater, where the attention should
never be drawn aside by trifles, but should be entirely occupied by
the subject itself.

The same local principles which characterise the Dutch school
extend even to their landscape painters; and Rubens himself, who
has painted many landscapes, has sometimes transgressed in this
particular. Their pieces in this way are, I think, always a
representation of an individual spot, and each in its kind a very
faithful but very confined portrait.

Claude Lorraine, on the contrary, was convinced that taking nature
as he found it seldom produced beauty. His pictures are a
composition of the various draughts which he has previously made
from various beautiful scenes and prospects. However, Rubens in
some measure has made amends for the deficiency with which he is
charged; he has contrived to raise and animate his otherwise
uninteresting views, by introducing a rainbow, storm, or some
particular accidental effect of light. That the practice of Claude
Lorraine, in respect to his choice, is to be adopted by landscape
painters, in opposition to that of the Flemish and Dutch schools,
there can be no doubt, as its truth is founded upon the same
principle as that by which the historical painter acquires perfect
form. But whether landscape painting has a right to aspire so far
as to reject what the painters call accidents of nature is not easy
to determine. It is certain Claude Lorraine seldom, if ever,
availed himself of those accidents; either he thought that such
peculiarities were contrary to that style of general nature which
he professed, or that it would catch the attention too strongly,
and destroy that quietness and repose which he thought necessary to
that kind of painting.

A portrait painter likewise, when he attempts history, unless he is
upon his guard, is likely to enter too much into the detail. He
too frequently makes his historical heads look like portraits; and
this was once the custom amongst those old painters who revived the
art before general ideas were practised or understood. A history
painter paints man in general; a portrait painter, a particular
man, and consequently a defective model.

Thus an habitual practice in the lower exercises of the art will
prevent many from attaining the greater. But such of us who move
in these humbler walks of the profession are not ignorant that, as
the natural dignity of the subject is less, the more all the little
ornamental helps are necessary to its embellishment. It would be
ridiculous for a painter of domestic scenes, of portraits,
landscapes, animals, or of still life, to say that he despised
those qualities which have made the subordinate schools so famous.
The art of colouring, and the skilful management of light and
shadow, are essential requisites in his confined labours. If we
descend still lower, what is the painter of fruit and flowers
without the utmost art in colouring, and what the painters call
handling; that is, a lightness of pencil that implies great
practice, and gives the appearance of being done with ease? Some
here, I believe, must remember a flower-painter whose boast it was
that he scorned to paint for the million; no, he professed to paint
in the true Italian taste; and despising the crowd, called
strenuously upon the few to admire him. His idea of the Italian
taste was to paint as black and dirty as he could, and to leave all
clearness and brilliancy of colouring to those who were fonder of
money than of immortality. The consequence was such as might be
expected. For these pretty excellences are here essential
beauties; and without this merit the artist's work will be more
short-lived than the objects of his imitation.

From what has been advanced, we must now be convinced that there
are two distinct styles in history painting: the grand, and the
splendid or ornamental.

The great style stands alone, and does not require, perhaps does
not so well admit, any addition from inferior beauties. The
ornamental style also possesses its own peculiar merit. However,
though the union of the two may make a sort of composite style, yet
that style is likely to be more imperfect than either of those
which go to its composition. Both kinds have merit, and may be
excellent though in different ranks, if uniformity be preserved,
and the general and particular ideas of nature be not mixed. Even
the meanest of them is difficult enough to attain; and the first
place being already occupied by the great artists in either
department, some of those who followed thought there was less room
for them, and feeling the impulse of ambition and the desire of
novelty, and being at the same time perhaps willing to take the
shortest way, they endeavoured to make for themselves a place
between both. This they have effected by forming a union of the
different orders. But as the grave and majestic style would suffer
by a union with the florid and gay, so also has the Venetian
ornament in some respect been injured by attempting an alliance
with simplicity.

It may be asserted that the great style is always more or less
contaminated by any meaner mixture. But it happens in a few
instances that the lower may be improved by borrowing from the
grand. Thus, if a portrait painter is desirous to raise and
improve his subject, he has no other means than by approaching it
to a general idea. He leaves out all the minute breaks and
peculiarities in the face, and changes the dress from a temporary
fashion to one more permanent, which has annexed to it no ideas of
meanness from its being familiar to us. But if an exact
resemblance of an individual be considered as the sole object to be
aimed at, the portrait painter will be apt to lose more than he
gains by the acquired dignity taken from general nature. It is
very difficult to ennoble the character of a countenance but at the
expense of the likeness, which is what is most generally required
by such as sit to the painter.

Of those who have practised the composite style, and have succeeded
in this perilous attempt, perhaps the foremost is Correggio. His
style is founded upon modern grace and elegance, to which is super,
added something of the simplicity of the grand style. A breadth of
light and colour, the general ideas of the drapery, an
uninterrupted flow of outline, all conspire to this effect. Next
him (perhaps equal to him) Parmegiano has dignified the genteelness
of modern effeminacy by uniting it with the simplicity of the
ancients and the grandeur and severity of Michael Angelo. It must
be confessed, however, that these two extraordinary men, by
endeavouring to give the utmost degree of grace, have sometimes,
perhaps, exceeded its boundaries, and have fallen into the most
hateful of all hateful qualities, affectation. Indeed, it is the
peculiar characteristic of men of genius to be afraid of coldness
and insipidity, from which they think they never can be too far
removed. It particularly happens to these great masters of grace
and elegance. They often boldly drive on to the very verge of
ridicule; the spectator is alarmed, but at the same time admires
their vigour and intrepidity.

Strange graces still, and stranger flights they had,
. . .
Yet ne'er so sure our passion to create
Ae when they touch'd the brink of all we hate.

The errors of genius, however, are pardonable, and none even of the
more exalted painters are wholly free from them; but they have
taught us, by the rectitude of their general practice, to correct
their own affected or accidental deviation. The very first have
not been always upon their guard, and perhaps there is not a fault
but what may take shelter under the most venerable authorities; yet
that style only is perfect in which the noblest principles are
uniformly pursued; and those masters only are entitled to the first
rank in, our estimation who have enlarged the boundaries of their
art, and have raised it to its highest dignity, by exhibiting the
general ideas of nature.

On the whole, it seems to me that there is but one presiding
principle which regulates and gives stability to every art. The
works, whether of poets, painters, moralists, or historians, which
are built upon general nature, live for ever; while those which
depend for their existence on particular customs and habits, a
partial view of nature, or the fluctuation of fashion, can only be
coeval with that which first raised them from obscurity. Present
time and future maybe considered as rivals, and he who solicits the
one must expect to be discountenanced by the other.


Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution
of the Prizes, December 10, 1772, by the President.

Gentlemen,--I purpose to carry on in this discourse the subject
which I began in my last. It was my wish upon that occasion to
incite you to pursue the higher excellences of the art. But I fear
that in this particular I have been misunderstood. Some are ready
to imagine, when any of their favourite acquirements in the art are
properly classed, that they are utterly disgraced. This is a very
great mistake: nothing has its proper lustre but in its proper
place. That which is most worthy of esteem in its allotted sphere
becomes an object, not of respect, but of derision, when it is
forced into a higher, to which it is not suited; and there it
becomes doubly a source of disorder, by occupying a situation which
is not natural to it, and by putting down from the first place what
is in reality of too much magnitude to become with grace and
proportion that subordinate station, to which something of less
value would be much better suited.

My advice in a word is this: keep your principal attention fixed
upon the higher excellences. If you compass them and compass
nothing more, you are still in the first class. We may regret the
innumerable beauties which you may want: you may be very
imperfect: but still, you are an imperfect person of the highest

If, when you have got thus far, you can add any, or all, of the
subordinate qualifications, it is my wish and advice that you
should not neglect them.

But this is as much a matter of circumspection and caution at least
as of eagerness and pursuit.

The mind is apt to be distracted by a multiplicity of pursuits; and
that scale of perfection, which I wish always to be preserved, is
in the greatest danger of being totally disordered, and even

Some excellences bear to be united, and are improved by union,
others are of a discordant nature; and the attempt to join them
only produces a harsher jarring of incongruent principles.

The attempt to unite contrary excellences (of form, for instance)
in a single figure, can never escape degenerating into the
monstrous, but by sinking into the insipid, taking away its marked
character, and weakening its expression.

This remark is true to a certain degree with regard to the
passions. If you mean to preserve the most perfect beauty in its
most perfect state, you cannot express the passions, which produce
(all of them) distortion and deformity, more or less, in the most
beautiful faces.

Guido, from want of choice in adapting his subject to his ideas and
his powers, or in attempting to preserve beauty where it could not
be preserved has in this respect succeeded very ill. His figures
are often engaged in subjects that required great expression: yet
his "Judith and Holofernes," the "Daughter of Herodias with the
Baptist's Head," the "Andromeda," and even the "Mothers of the
Innocents," have little more expression than his "Venus attired by
the Graces."

Obvious as these remarks appear, there are many writers on our art,
who, not being of the profession, and consequently not knowing what
can or what cannot be done, have been very liberal of absurd

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