English Portrait School
( Originally Published 1907 )
ENGLAND was the last of the great European countries to develop a national school of painting. It was Henry VIII who first awoke to the fact that his people were so behindhand in the matter of art. The contemporary monarchs, Charles V and Francis I, were vying with each other in the patronage of painting, and he did not wish to appear any less munificent or progressive than they. He accordingly invited Raphael to his court, but the favourite of popes and cardinals had no mind to exchange Rome for a land of barbarians. A few lesser Italians were all that the English king could attract, until he was so fortunate as to secure the services of Holbein. The German painter, as we have seen, did splendid work in England and aroused a widespread interest in portrait painting which steadily increased. In the following two hundred years a succession of continental artists were employed by English sovereigns in the practice of portrait painting. Queen Mary was immortalized by the Fleming Sir Anthony Moro,' Elizabeth, by Lucas de Heere, Mark Gerard and the Italian Zucchero. King James had several Flemings in his service, Mytens, Jansens, and Van Somer. Then came Charles I with the incomparable Van Dyck, to be followed by Charles II with Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller. The English peerage had patronized these artists liberally, but without discrimination : there was little genuine connoisseurship. The fashionable painter of the hour set the standard of taste. Lely in his day was reckoned as good as Van Dyck, and Sir Godfrey Kneller as good as Lely. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the popular creed was " Shakespeare in poetry and Kneller in painting." This was the state of affairs when the young painter Reynolds re-turned to London after three years of study in Italy and ventured to introduce some innovations. He met at first much opposition, but he had not long to wait for success, and in the end, as all the world knows, he founded a national portrait school which is the glory of English art. With such brilliant leaders as Reynolds and Gainsborough, it included lesser lights of varying degrees: Romney, Opie, Hoppner, and Lawrence; with Barry, Beechey, Etty, Northcote, and Shee, as minor names. These men were fortunate in having a biographer like Allan Cunningham, who was a sort of English Vasari, preserving the personalities of the artists as well as an accurate record of their works, and interspersing his narrative with lively anecdote.
Certain common tendencies and certain common points of craftsmanship unite these men in a " school." Some of these may be plainly traced to Van Dyck, while others were the natural expression of the spirit of the times. For the rest each painter cherished, not a little jealously, his own particular forte.
The proudest claim of the school is that it developed the beauty of womanhood and--childhood. Slowly through the centuries, portrait painting had been working towards this goal, but it was the English, with the most beautiful women and children in the world, who first touched it. The Italian Renaissance had produced much that was beautiful in ideal types of the Virgin mother and the divine babe. Leonardo had been the subtlest in his portrait interpretations, Titian and the Venetians, the most absorbed in bodily charm. Van Dyck, though advancing upon his predecessors in the number and interest of his child and woman portraits, still left much to be de-sired. It could not yet be said that any painter up to this time regarded the woman or child with an understanding at all comparable to that bestowed upon the man.
Another characteristic quality of the eighteenth-century English portrait is the animation and cheerfulness of the subject. Contrasted with the gravity and dignity of the people of Titian, Van Dyck and Velasquez, this new way was very striking. Before Leonardo, no portrait face had ever smiled, and for a century after, the serious note prevailed. The seventeenth-century Dutch had made the first decided break from this tradition. Frans Hals in particular had devoted himself to the joyous aspects of human life. This mode of treatment, transferred from the coarser and commoner subjects of his brush to the English aristocracy, gives distinctive character to the English school.
From Van Dyck came the noble air of distinction which prevails in the English eighteenth-century portrait. Some of his most successful poses were borrowed outright as the ideal expression of the princely bearing. From Van Dyck, too, as an inevitable corollary, came the tendency to flattery which was the English painters' pleasant weakness.
Reynolds himself led in this direction, making his men " all nobleness," his women " all loveliness," and his children " all simplicity." But Lawrence was perhaps the mightiest flatterer of them all. The commercial instinct was too strong in this " nation of shopkeepers " for the painter to resist the temptation to tickle his noble patron's vanity. With flattery must be coupled artificiality, which was the besetting sin of the age. England indeed never went to such extremes as France, nor did she produce any Nattier or Greuze. But portraiture could not reflect faithfully con-temporary life without more or less affectation in attitude, costume, and expression. The greatest absurdity perhaps was the craze for allegorical or mythological subjects, such as prevailed in France. English gentlewomen took delight in posing as Hope nursing Love, as Diana disarming Cupid, and as many an-other classical divinity in a sentimental rôle. Offsetting these idiocies were the family groups like snap-shots of nursery frolics and garden romps, embodying so charmingly the joys of English home life.
Sir Joshua Reynolds was particularly felicitous in this direction. There seemed no end to his resourcefulness in inventing story motives for portraits. A sitting in the big studio at Leicester Square was an event to look forward to. Here was an atmosphere of genial courtesy which put everybody at ease.
The painter had a genius for child friendships, and was a capital playmate. He contended that all the natural motions of childhood are graceful, and watching his little visitors in their games, he caught many a charming attitude and gesture. The lively Miss Bowles, skipping about the park with her pet spaniel, suddenly sees something to attract her attention, drops on her knees, clasps her dog in a choking embrace, and challenges the intruder with merry eyes. Master Bunbury, a lusty boy of nine, has run himself panting, and sits under a tree to watch with bated breath some object in the distance. Not less appealing in their child-likeness are other little folk who are not quite so active, like Frances Harris standing by a tree with her hand on the head of a big dog, and Penelope Boothby, the demure, crossing her mit-enveloped hands primly on her lap.
The Countess Spencer, in broad-brimmed hat and lace-trimmed mantle, walking through the glade with her little son, calls the child to her from some fancied danger, and stooping gathers him to her side, while the tiny dog is impatient to scamper away. Mrs. Payne-Gallway, enjoying an outing with her little boy, gives him a ride, clinging to her shoulder,-" Pick-a-back." The Duchess of Devonshire has had her baby daughter brought to her morning room for a romp, and seated on a sofa, trots the little creature to Banbury Cross amid gurgles of laughter. The stately Lady Cockburn gathers her three darlings about her, the baby lying across her capacious lap, while the others try to draw his attention, one peeping roguishly over his mother's shoulder. Reynolds managed groups of this sort with astonishing ease, though doubtless what looks so spontaneous often cost him a deal of thought. His sense of composition was admirable; whatever the form which he chose for a basis the lines fall perfectly within his diagram without any apparent forcing. A just sense of balance gives dignity and elegance to his style.
For extreme vivacity the portrait of the Countess Crosbie has never been surpassed. The lady comes hurrying towards us across the lawn, her slender figure swaying with the swift motion, her arm eagerly out-stretched, and in another moment she will pass out of -the canvas. Even in seated figures Reynolds could convey the sense of animation, as in the Honourable Ann Bingham, and the bewitching Nelly O'Brien. In subjects like Mrs. Braddyl he suggested admirably the meditative mood, in Kitty Fisher, the pose of youthful insouciance, and in Lavinia Bingham, the air of sweet timidity. We like to dwell upon Reynolds' women and children, because they are a new creation in art, but not because he was less successful with men. It is he who has given us the Johnson of Boswell's pages: ponderous, uncouth, untidy, his face distorted with the force of his argument. Lord Heath-field, the hero of Gibraltar, grasping the keys of the fortress, embodies the indomitable spirit and the high morale calibre of the English soldier. Lawrence Sterne, with the wide mouth curved in a satirical smile, fixes his deep-set eyes upon us with his inscrutable glance. Charles James Fox, Edmund Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick, and a host of other men who lent lustre to the reign of George III live again in Reynolds' portraits.
It would be useless to go on enumerating and describing the portrait works of a painter who produced two or three thousand pictures. Naturally they could not be uniformly good. None knew better than the painter himself the faults of drawing and technique into which he sometimes fell through lack of early training. Yet his essential gifts of charm out-weighed lesser things, and he was the idol of the fashionable world. In his most prolific period he had six sitters a day and often turned out a portrait in four hours. His unfortunate mania for experimenting in colours wrecked many a beautiful canvas. From the use of pigments which were not permanent, faded faces look out today which are mere ghosts of their original brilliancy.
As president of the Royal Academy, as well as in the direction of pupils, Reynolds had a great influence upon contemporary art, but his best qualities have never been duplicated. Gainsborough was his closest rival, and though coming to London late in life, when Reynolds had already been established over twenty years, the royal favour brought him instant success. Reynolds could never quite forgive this encroachment upon his own supremacy until his rival lay on his death-bed. He then paid him a farewell call and expressed his sympathy in appropriate words. It is said that Gainsborough whimsically re-plied, " We are all going to heaven together — and Van Dyck is of the company." Gainsborough was by no means the all-around man that Reynolds was, but he had flashes of inspiration which the other was incapable of. Once and again he might fail of securing a successful arrangement, but another time, as a person entered the studio, he would see on the instant the complete picture, and base his work on this sudden vision. Careful elaboration could never achieve such perfect results. In some such way he must have conceived the incomparable " Morning Walk." A bridal pair ( Squire and Mrs. Hallett), strolling through the park with their clog, exhale the delightful atmosphere of their romance. The figures are combined in a perfeet harmony of line and move forward in rhythmic unison. Orpin, the Parish Clerk, looks up from the ponderous volume he has been perusing with cheerful response to an inquiry which the painter must have caught in the face in some actual interview.
A wonderful gift of sympathy gave Gains-borough an insight into character vouchsafed to few. He often discovered pathos where others might have read a more cheerful story. Elizabeth Linley, the " fair maid of Bath," is one of the most appealing of his sitters, with big dreamy eyes and delicate features. She was the beautiful singer who made a romantic runaway match with the actor Richard Sheridan. The Honourable Mrs. Graham, standing against a pillar, richly dressed, and bearing the honours of her position with sweet dignity, has an air of interesting melancholy. Upon her death, in the fulness of her young womanhood, her husband could not endure the wistful gaze of the portrait, and had it hidden away where it was lost for half a century. Even Mrs. Robinson, painted at the height of her career as Perdita when enjoying the favour of the prince, sits under a tree, lost in some sorrowing reflections, as if foreseeing her lonely and unhappy end.
The famous Blue Boy, seen in a black and white reproduction, might almost be taken for the work of Van Dyck, so closely did the painter imitate the graceful attitude and air of breeding for which the earlier painter set the type. But with this he united a sweetness and naïveté which are not of Van Dyck. In colour the picture is from Gainsborough's own palette, which one can pick out easily in a multitude of his contemporaries' works. The pearly gray of his flesh tones, and the delicacy and refinement of his harmonies, especially in handling blue, mark his peculiar individuality. In poetic imagination he had no equal among his contemporaries.
The distinctive qualities of Reynolds and Gainsborough are admirably illustrated in ,their portraits of the same person, as for in-stance the Duchess of Devonshire, the beauty of whom Gibbon wittily said, that " if she beckoned to the Lord Chancellor to rise from his woolsack he could not but obey." Mrs. Siddons was another fair sitter they both portrayed. Reynolds was to paint the great actress as the Tragic Muse, and it is said that on her arrival at the studio, he led her to the chair, saying in his pompous phraseology.
Ascend your undisputed throne; bestow on me some idea of the Tragic Muse." Where-upon she at once assumed the position in which he painted her. It was undeniably a histrionic pose, as she sits with head turned, listening to the voices of conflicting emotions, the left hand raised as if to command silence. Nobly conceived and finely executed, it was no wonder that Reynolds was proud to paint his name on the ornamental border of her robe, with the gallant explanation that he " could not resist the temptation of going down to posterity on the hem of her garment." In Gainsborough's portrait of the same year, Mrs. Siddons, the woman of the world in modish attire, sweeps one day into the artist's studio, drops into a chair for a chat and is caught on the canvas in all the charm and spontaneity of her vivacious mood. Still another phase of the lady's many-sided character was brought out by Lawrence, who painted her several times. In the best known of these pictures, she is in negligée, and looking full into her face, we get a bit of the weariness, as well as the sweetness of her mood.
To compare Gainsborough with still an-other artist, we may match his Mrs. Robinson with the portrait of the same lady by Romney. In the walking-dress of Perdita, muff and lace bonnet, she moves across our vision turning upon us a face full of coy and piquant charm.
Romney, like Reynolds, looked preferably on the joyous side of life, though not insensible to the graver aspects. It was Emma Lyon whose buoyant spirit opened to him the wider possibilities of his art. She was no less an artist than he in her own way, creating new subjects for him, as the mood possessed her. Now she is Circe, the enchantress, working her fascinating spell upon us; now a Bacchante, leading the sacrificial kid, with a hound bounding joyously at her side. Cassandra, Titania, Euphrosyne, Ariadne, a Nun, and a Spinner, are some of her many disguises. She could not be ungraceful if she would; her face was beautiful from every point of view; and her sparkling eyes and lovely smile never fail to captivate us. Her strange career reads like an exaggerated romance of Balzac. Beginning life as a ladies' maid, she passed from one entanglement to another till her marriage with Sir William Hamilton gave her entrée to the great world. She then passed out of Romney's life for further adventures. For nearly ten years she had been a necessity to his art, and his loss was inestimable. Not long after her marriage he broke down completely, returning to his country home and long neglected wife to die.
Romney is distinguished by the beauty of his draughtsmanship, by pleasing colour, and a delightful pictorial sense. Some exquisite groups of children show a flow of line and a lightness of motion that could scarcely be equalled in any school of art. Heads like the Parson's Daughter, and Mrs. Tickell, and full-length figures like Mrs. Mark Currie, illustrate the simplicity and directness of his art. He was not perhaps a very profound thinker, nor an artist of great range, but without him English art would have missed a delightful element peculiar to himself.
Of less important names Opie is one whose work has stood well the test of time. He had not the aptitude of some of his contemporaries for women's portraits, and lacked both the brush and the tongue of the flatterer. A lady once sitting for her portrait bade him make her beautiful. " Then, Madame, I suppose you do not want it to be like," was the caustic reply. His men's portraits were painted with admirable sincerity, and are genuine character studies in the expressiveness of the eyes. Some of his distinguished sitters were Charles Fox, Southey, and Mr. William Siddons. Opie was himself a man of the typical artistic temperament, subject to fits of depression and self-disparagement. His modest success was due to his own merit, and he made his way without influence or favour.
Hoppner had a great vogue for a time, although his name is now little known. Unfortunately his colours have not always stood well. He painted the portraits of several members of the royal family, and was con sequently sought after by many persons of quality. The names of bishops, dukes and earls were in his lists, as well as many beautiful women of rank. In the heyday of his popularity he met a powerful competitor in Lawrence, who had won the favour of the king, as Hoppner had that of the Prince of Wales. The patrons of the rival painters made two society factions, and feeling became very bitter. Lawrence had however the surest passport to success in his gift of flattery. What woman could resist the temptation of having her charms enhanced by his magic brush? Hoppner's death in 1810 left the younger man alone in the field for the remaining twenty years of his life. In 1815 he was knighted and later became the president of the Royal Academy.
The story of Lawrence's life is peculiarly romantic, beginning in obscurity, as the son of an innkeeper. He was an infant prodigy, astonishing his father's guests when about five years of age with recitations and drawings. At ten he was supporting the family with his pencil. In the fluctuating standards of the day he was ranked as high as his predecessors Reynolds and Gainsborough, but in more modern criticism his true place is assigned decidedly below them. In his works the artificial spirit of the age reached its limit. " Lawrence," said the blunt Opie, " made coxcombs of his sitters, and his sitters made a coxcomb of Lawrence." Certainly the affectations of his portrait personalities is often the first thing to strike us, and this is naturally more conspicious in women than in men. As Fanny Kemble wittily said, " They were fine ladies, but by no means great ladies." Yet his art was preeminently feminine in quality. Such portraits as Lady Blessington and Lady Gower are on his highest level, and show his remarkable insight. Comparing them with male portraits like John Julius Angerstein, and the Pope Pius VII, we see what Lawrence might have been, had he been strong enough to resist the meretricious taste of his environment. The captivating smile of the clever and fascinating woman, and the genial refinement of the philanthropist have been seized with extraordinary success. Lawrence's colour was often very beautiful, particularly in the heads of children.
It is customary to include in the English school the Scottish painter Sir Henry Rae-burn, who practised his profession in Edinburgh. This semi isolation kept him free from certain weaknesses of his contemporaries, and preserved the originality and vigour of his work. His style is marked by a boldness and simplicity which have linked his name to that of Frans Hals and Velasquez. His six portraits of Sir Walter Scott have made the face of the great romancer familiar all over the world. Many other distinguished Scotchmen sat to him and some charming women. His portraits are full of vitality.
It was during the latter half of the great period of English portrait painting that our own early American portrait school was developed. Our two foremost painters, Copley and Stuart, were a long time in London where they practised their profession and enjoyed the help of the Anglicized American President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West. The mother country had reason to be proud of her American art offspring, and Copley and Stuart proved solid names upon which to build the art history of the new nation.