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Idler 045 [No. 45: On painting. Portraits defended]
by [?]

The event painted must be such as excites passion, and different passions in the several actors, or a tumult of contending passions in the chief.

Perhaps the discovery of Ulysses by his nurse is of this kind. The surprise of the nurse mingled with joy; that of Ulysses checked by prudence, and clouded by solicitude; and the distinctness of the action by which the scar is found; all concur to complete the subject. But the picture, having only two figures, will want variety.

A much nobler assemblage may be furnished by the death of Epaminondas. The mixture of gladness and grief in the face of the messenger who brings his dying general an account of the victory; the various passions of the attendants; the sublimity of composure in the hero, while the dart is by his own command drawn from his side, and the faint gleam of satisfaction that diffuses itself over the languor of death; are worthy of that pencil which yet I do not wish to see employed upon them.

If the design were not too multifarious and extensive, I should wish that our painters would attempt the dissolution of the parliament by Cromwell[3]. The point of time may be chosen when Cromwell, looking round the Pandaemonium with contempt, ordered the bauble to be taken away; and Harrison laid hands on the Speaker to drag him from the chair.

The various appearances which rage, and terrour, and astonishment, and guilt, might exhibit in the faces of that hateful assembly, of whom the principal persons may be faithfully drawn from portraits or prints; the irresolute repugnance of some, the hypocritical submissions of others, the ferocious insolence of Cromwell, the rugged brutality of Harrison, and the general trepidation of fear and wickedness, would, if some proper disposition could be contrived, make a picture of unexampled variety, and irresistible instruction.

[1] Some judicious remarks on portrait painting may be found in Chalmers’ Preface to Idler, Brit. Ess. 33.

The difference between the French and English schools, in this department of the Art, well proves that mind has scope for its powers in portrait, and that genius alone can so generalize the details “as to identify the individual man with the dignity of his thinking powers.”

[2] Has that picture, which is considered the finest in the world, the transfiguration, this requisite? Could any human eye, at one and the same moment, have beheld the apostles baffled with the stubborn spirit which they had not faith to quell, and the glories on the Mount?

[3] This subject has now been most successfully handled by West. Hall’s exquisite engraving has rendered the picture familiar.