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On Certain Inconsistencies In Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses
by [?]

Yet presently after he adds:

‘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.’

Here, then, Sir Joshua admits that it is a question whether the student is likely to be at all capable of such an acquisition as the higher excellencies of art, though he had said in the passage just quoted above that it is within the reach of constant assiduity and of a disposition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit to effect all that is usually considered as the result of natural powers. Is the theory which our author means to inculcate a mere delusion, a mere arbitrary assumption? At one moment Sir Joshua attributes the hopelessness of the student to attain perfection to the discouraging influence of certain figurative and overstrained expressions, and in the next doubts his capacity for such an acquisition under any circumstances. Would he have him hope against hope, then? If he ‘examines his own mind and finds nothing there of that divine inspiration with which he is told so many others have been favoured,’ but which he has never felt himself; if ‘he finds himself possessed of no other qualifications’ for the highest efforts of genius and imagination ‘than what mere common observation and a plain understanding can confer,’ be may as well desist at once from ‘ascending the brightest heaven of invention’:–if the very idea of the divinity of art deters instead of animating him, if the enthusiasm with which others speak of it damps the flame in his own breast, he had better not enter into a competition where he wants the first principle of success, the daring to aspire and the hope to excel. He may be assured he is not the man. Sir Joshua himself was not struck at first by the sight of the masterpieces of the great style of art, and he seems unconsciously to have adopted this theory to show that he might still have succeeded in it but for want of due application. His hypothesis goes to this–to make the common run of his readers fancy they can do all that can be done by genius, and to make the mail of genius believe he can only do what is to be done by mechanical rules and systematic industry. This is not a very feasible scheme; nor is Sir Joshua sufficiently clear and explicit in his reasoning in support of it.

In speaking of Carlo Maratti, he confesses the inefficiency of this doctrine in a very remarkable manner:–

‘Carlo Maratti succeeded better than those I have first named, and I think owes his superiority to the extension of his views: besides his master Andrea Sacchi, he imitated Raffaelle, Guido, and the Caraccis. It is true, there is nothing very captivating in Carlo Maratti; but this proceeded from a want which cannot be completely supplied; that is, want of strength of parts. In this certainly men are not equal; and a man can bring home wares only in proportion with the capital with which he goes to market. Carlo, by diligence, made the most of what he had; but there was undoubtedly a heaviness about him, which extended itself uniformly to his invention, expression, his drawing, colouring, and the general effect of his pictures. The truth is, he never equalled any of his patterns in any one thing, and he added little of his own.’

Here, then, Reynolds, we see, fairly gives up the argument. Carlo, after all, was a heavy hand; nor could all his diligence and his making the most of what he had make up for the want of ‘natural powers.’ Sir Joshua’s good sense pointed out to him the truth in the individual instance, though he might be led astray by a vague general theory. Such, however, is the effect of a false principle that there is an evident bias in the artist’s mind to make genius lean upon others for support, instead of trusting to itself and developing its own incommunicable resources. So in treating in the Twelfth Discourse of the way in which great artists are formed, Sir Joshua reverts very nearly to his first position: