There is in many minds a kind of vanity exerted to the disadvantage of themselves; a desire to be praised for superior acuteness discovered only in the degradation of their species, or censure of their country.
Defamation is sufficiently copious. The general lampooner of mankind may find long exercise for his zeal or wit, in the defects of nature, the vexations of life, the follies of opinion, and the corruptions of practice. But fiction is easier than discernment; and most of these writers spare themselves the labour of inquiry, and exhaust their virulence upon imaginary crimes, which, as they never existed, can never be amended.
That the painters find no encouragement among the English for many other works than portraits, has been imputed to national selfishness. ‘Tis vain, says the satirist, to set before, any Englishman the scenes of landscape, or the heroes of history; nature and antiquity are nothing in his eye; he has no value but for himself, nor desires any copy but of his own form.
Whoever is delighted with his own picture must derive his pleasure from the pleasure of another. Every man is always present to himself, and has, therefore, little need of his own resemblance, nor can desire it, but for the sake of those whom he loves, and by whom he hopes to be remembered. This use of the art is a natural and reasonable consequence of affection; and though, like other human actions, it is often complicated with pride, yet even such pride is more laudable than that by which palaces are covered with pictures, that, however excellent, neither imply the owner’s virtue, nor excite it.
Genius is chiefly exerted in historical pictures; and the art of the painter of portraits is often lost in the obscurity of his subject. But it is in painting as in life; what is greatest is not always best. I should grieve to see Reynolds transfer to heroes and to goddesses, to empty splendour and to airy fiction, that art which is now employed in diffusing friendship, in reviving tenderness, in quickening the affections of the absent, and continuing the presence of the dead.
Yet in a nation great and opulent there is room, and ought to be patronage, for an art like that of painting through all its diversities; and it is to be wished, that the reward now offered for an historical picture may excite an honest emulation, and give beginning to an English school.
It is not very easy to find an action or event that can be efficaciously represented by a painter.
He must have an action not successive but instantaneous; for the time of a picture is a single moment. For this reason, the death of Hercules cannot well be painted, though, at the first view, it flatters the imagination with very glittering ideas: the gloomy mountain, overhanging the sea, and covered with trees, some bending to the wind, and some torn from their roots by the raging hero; the violence with which he rends from his shoulders the envenomed garment; the propriety with which his muscular nakedness may be displayed; the death of Lycas whirled from the promontory; the gigantick presence of Philoctetes; the blaze of the fatal pile, which the deities behold with grief and terrour from the sky.
All these images fill the mind, but will not compose a picture, because they cannot be united in a single moment. Hercules must have rent his flesh at one time, and tossed Lycas into the air at another; he must first tear up the trees, and then lie down upon the pile.
The action must be circumstantial and distinct. There is a passage in the Iliad which cannot be read without strong emotions. A Trojan prince, seized by Achilles in the battle, falls at his feet, and in moving terms supplicates for life. “How can a wretch like thee,” says the haughty Greek, “intreat to live, when thou knowest that the time must come when Achilles is to die?” This cannot be painted, because no peculiarity of attitude or disposition can so supply the place of language as to impress the sentiment.
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. 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.