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

‘My advice in a word is this: keep your principal attention fixed upon the higher excellencies. If you compass them, and compass nothing more, you are still in the first class. We may regret the innumerable beauties which you may want; you may be very imperfect, but still you are an imperfect artist of the highest order.’

This is the Fifth Discourse. In the Seventh our artist seems to waver, and flings a doubt on his former decision, whereby ‘it loses some colour.’

‘Indeed perfection in an inferior style may be reasonably preferred to mediocrity in the highest walks of art. A landscape of Claude Lorraine may[2] be preferred to a history by Luca Giordano: but hence appears the necessity of the connoisseur’s knowing in what consists the excellency of each class, in order to judge how near it approaches to perfection.’

As he advances, however, he grows bolder, and altogether discards his theory of judging of the artist by the class to which he belongs–‘But we have the sanction of all mankind,’ he says, ‘in preferring genius in a lower rank of art to feebleness and insipidity in the highest.’ This is in speaking of Gainsborough. The whole passage is excellent, and, I should think, conclusive against the general and factitious style of art on which he insists so much at other times.

‘On this ground, however unsafe, I will venture to prophesy, that two of the last distinguished painters of that country, I mean Pompeio Battoni and Rafaelle Mengs, however great their names may at present sound in our ears,[3] will very soon fall into the rank of Imperiale, Sebastian Concha, Placido Constanza, Musaccio, and the rest of their immediate predecessors; whose names, though equally renowned in their lifetime, are now fallen into what is little short of total oblivion. I do not say that those painters were not superior to the artist I allude to,[4] and whose loss we lament, in a certain routine of practice, which, to the eyes of common observers, has the air of a learned composition, and bears a sort of superficial resemblance to the manner of the great men who went before them. I know this perfectly well; but I know likewise, that a man looking for real and lasting reputation must unlearn much of the common-place method so observable in the works of the artists whom I have named. For my own part, I confess, I take more interest in and am more captivated with the powerful impression of nature, which Gainsborough exhibited in his portraits and in his landscapes, and the interesting simplicity and elegance of his little ordinary beggar-children, than with any of the works of that school, since the time of Andrea Sacchi, or perhaps we may say Carlo Maratti: two painters who may truly be said to be ULTIMI ROMANORUM.

‘I am well aware how much I lay myself open to the censure and ridicule of the academical professors of other nations in preferring the humble attempts of Gainsborough to the works of those regular graduates in the great historical style. But we have the sanction of all mankind in preferring genius in a lower rank of art to feebleness and insipidity in the highest.’

Yet this excellent artist and critic had said but a few pages before when working upon his theory–‘For this reason I shall beg leave to lay before you a few thoughts on the subject; to throw out some hints that may lead your minds to an opinion (which I take to be the true one) that Painting is not only not to be considered as an imitation operating by deception, but that it is, and ought to be, in many points of view and strictly speaking, no imitation at all of external nature. Perhaps it ought to be as far removed from the vulgar idea of imitation as the refined, civilised state in which we live is removed from a gross state of nature; and those who have not cultivated their imaginations, which the majority of mankind certainly have not, may be said, in regard to arts, to continue in this state of nature. Such men will always prefer imitation’ (the imitation of nature) ‘to that excellence which is addressed to another faculty that they do not possess; but these are not the persons to whom a painter is to look, any more than a judge of morals and manners ought to refer controverted points upon those subjects to the opinions of people taken from the banks of the Ohio or from New Holland.’