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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 14. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses

It may not seem inappropriate to add in his place a few words concerning the series of Discourses delivered by Sir Joshua Reynolds, from 1769 to 1790, to the students of the Royal Academy. These Discourses have become a classic of our language, because they are justly regarded as a model of art criticism, devoted as they are to essentials and written in a style of great beauty and distinction, and exhibiting in every page Reynolds’s love and knowledge of his art, as well as the literary powers of his mind. The advice of a master grounded on his own knowledge and practice must always possess a real value, and Reynolds is severe in his condemnation of the futility of much art criticism by amateurs.

  • “There are,” he writes, “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 praises in their descriptions of favourite works. They always find in them what they are resolved to find.” And, again: “It has been the fate of Arts to be enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.”
  • In urging the duty of industry and perseverance, he has been supposed to imply a doubt as to the existence of genius; but, when he affirms that the supposed genius must use the same hard means of obtaining success as are imposed upon others, a deeper scepticism than was really his need not be imputed to him. It was a false idea of genius which he desired to correct.

  • Genius is supposed to be a power of producing excellences which are out of the reach of the rules of art: a power which no precepts can teach, and which no industry can acquire.
  • In another place he says:

  • “The industry which I principally recommended is not the industry of the hands, but of the mind.” Further, when advocating the duty of clear expression: “If in order to be intelligible, I appear to degrade art by bringing her down from the visionary situation in the clouds, it is only to give her a solid mansion upon the earth.”
  • The first Discourse was delivered at the opening of the Royal Academy and deals with the advantages to be expected from the institution of that body. The ninth Discourse is, again, general, and was delivered on the removal of the Royal Academy from Pall Mall to Somerset place. The fifteenth and last contains the president’s farewell to the students and members of the Royal Academy and a review of the scope of the Discourses, ending with an eulogium on Michel Angelo:

  • I reflect not without vanity that these Discourses bear testimony of my admiration of that truly divine man; and I should desire that the last words which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of MICHEL ANGELO.
  • Burke, who was in the president’s chair, then descended from the rostrum, taking the lecturer’s hand, and said, in Milton’s words:
  • The Angel ended, and in Adam’s ear
  • So charming left his voice, that he awhile
  • Thought him still speaking, still stood fix’d to hear.
  • The incident illustrates the deep interest taken by Burke in his friend’s Discourses; and it has been suggested that he had much to do with their composition. But they so evidently contain Reynolds’s own individual views, and the thoughts are expressed so naturally and clearly, that such an idea must be put aside as absurd. Reynolds was a highly cultured man, and, doubtless, he gained much in clearness of literary insight by his intimate association with such men as Johnson and Burke; but a careful study of the Discourses would prove to most readers that the language as well as the thoughts were Reynolds’s own. He was, however, not the man to reject suggested improvement in style from his distinguished friends, and, doubtless, both Johnson and Burke proposed some verbal improvements in the proofs.

    The general reception of the work was extremely favourable; and that it was appreciated abroad is evidenced by the empress Catharine of Russia’s present to Reynolds of a gold snuff-box, adorned with her portrait in relief, set in diamonds, as an expression of her appreciation of the Discourses.

    The plan of the Discourses, carried on through many years, is consistent throughout. The writer did not interfere with the teaching of the professors; but it was his aim to deal with the general principles underlying the art. He started by pointing out the dangers of facility, as there is no short path to excellence. When the pupil’s genius has received its utmost improvement, rules may, possibly, be dispensed with; but the author adds: “Let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building.” In claiming the right to teach, he modestly says that his hints are in a great degree founded on his own mistakes.

    The earlier half of the series dealt with the objects of study, the leading principles to be kept in view and the four general ideas which regulate every branch of the art—invention, expression, colouring and drapery. Much stress is laid upon the importance of imitation; but this word must be accurately defined:

  • Study Nature attentively but always with those masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.
  • The second half is appropriated to the consideration of more general points, such as genius and imagination. The tenth Discourse, on sculpture, is the least satisfactory of the series. The fourteenth Discourse is of special interest as relating to Gainsborough; and the particulars of the meeting of the two great painters at the death-bed of Gainsborough are charmingly related.

    Although great changes have taken place in public opinion in the relative estimation of various schools of painting, most of Reynolds’s remarks, dealing as they do with essentials, remain of value. The book is charming reading for all who love art, and the reader will close it with a higher appreciation of the character of the man and the remarkable insight of the great painter.