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

‘The daily food and nourishment of the mind of an Artist is found in the great works of his predecessors. There is no other way for him to become great himself. Serpens, nigi serpentem comederit, non fit draco. Raffaelle, as appears from what has been said, had carefully studied the works of Masaccio, and indeed there was no other, if we except Michael Angelo (whom he likewise imitated),[1] so worthy of his attention; and though his manner was dry and hard, his compositions formal, and not enough diversified, according to the custom of Painters in that early period, yet his works possess that grandeur and simplicity which accompany, and even sometimes proceed from, regularity and hardness of manner. We must consider the barbarous state of the arts before his time, when skill in drawing was so little understood, that the best of the painters could not even foreshorten the foot, but every figure appeared to stand upon his toes, and what served for drapery had, from the hardness and smallness of the folds, too much the appearance of cords clinging round the body. He first introduced large drapery, flowing in an easy and natural manner; indeed, he appears to be the first who discovered the path that leads to every excellence to which the art afterwards arrived, and may therefore be justly considered as one of the Great Fathers of Modern Art.

‘Though I have been led on to a longer digression respecting this great painter than I intended, yet I cannot avoid mentioning another excellence which he possessed in a very eminent degree: he was as much distinguished among his contemporaries for his diligence and industry as he was for the natural faculties of his mind. We are told that his whole attention was absorbed in the pursuit of his art, and that he acquired the name of Masaccio from his total disregard to his dress, his person, and all the common concerns of life. He is indeed a signal instance of what well-directed diligence will do in a short time: he lived but twenty-seven years, yet in that short space carried the art so far beyond what it had before reached, that he appears to stand alone as a model for his successors. Vasari gives a long catalogue of painters and sculptors who formed their taste and learned their art by studying his works; among those, he names Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Raffaelle, Bartholomeo, Andrea del Sarto, Il Rosso, and Pierino del Vaga.’

Sir Joshua here again halts between two opinions. He tells us the names of the painters who formed themselves upon Masaccio’s style: he does not tell us on whom he formed himself. At one time the natural faculties of his mind were as remarkable as his industry; at another he was only a signal instance of what well-directed diligence will do in a short time. Then again, ‘he appears to have been the first who discovered the path that leads to every excellence to which the Art afterwards arrived,’ though he is introduced in an argument to show that ‘the daily food and nourishment of the mind of the Artist must be found in the works of his predecessors.’ There is something surely very wavering and unsatisfactory in all this.

Sir Joshua, in another part of his work, endeavours to reconcile and prop up these contradictions by a paradoxical sophism which I think turns upon himself. He says: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only’ (by which he has just explained himself to mean the study of other masters), ‘variety, and even originality of invention is produced. I will go further: even genius, at least, what is so called, is the child of imitation. But as this appears to be contrary to the general opinion, I must explain my position before I enforce it.