Monday, August 23, 2010

The discourses of Joshua Reynolds 2

Joshua Reynolds, self portrait from

Here I am again, excerpting selections from J.Reynolds discourses. I will publish the text, in italics and then "translate" in contemporary language.

If deceiving the eye were the only business of the Art there is no doubt indeed but the minute painter would be more apt to succeed but it is not the eye it is the mind which the painter of genius desires to address nor will he waste a moment upon those smaller objects which only serve to catch the sense to divide the attention and to counteract his great design of speaking to the heart

If looking just like nature was the only purpose of art, the most detailed painter would be most effective. But it is not the eye, but the mind, to which the great painter wants to speak. He won't waste his time upon small details that catch the eye and divide the attention of the viewer from his larger purpose of speaking to the heart.

They who have never observed the gradation by which art is acquired who see only what is the full result of long labour and application of an infinite number and infinite variety of acts are apt to conclude from their entire inability to do the same at once that it is not only inaccessible to themselves but can be done by those only who have some gift of the nature of inspiration bestowed upon them.

Those who have never seen the slow process by which skill in art is acquired, but instead only the results of that long effort, are apt to think they are unable to do the same thing because it is a gift that the artist has. They think that they could never do the same thing because they havn't received that special gift.

Reynolds is talking about those people who are unaware of the work and training that goes into being an artist, and how their opinion that it is a gift, belittles all the efforts that the artist has made to be able to practice his craft.

The great use of studying our predecessors is to open the mind to shorten our labour and to give us the result of the selection made by those great minds of what is grand or beautiful in Nature her rich stores are all spread out before us but it is an art and no easy art to know how or what to choose and how to attain and secure the object of our choice.

The purpose of studying the art of the past is to open us to possibilities, to make it easier to make and to show us what great painters thought was beautiful in nature. There is so much available in nature it is hard to know what to select to paint,or how best to represent it.

This genius consists I conceive in the power of expressing that which employs your pencil whatever it may be as a whole so that the general effect and power of the whole may take possession of the mind and for a while suspend the consideration of the subordinate and particular beauties or defects

This ability is to represent whatever you wish in its entirety. That way the whole image will capture the viewers attention, instead of dwelling on little details or faults or interesting non essential characteristics of that which is represented. The large important aspect of the subject is presented preventing the viewer from becoming mired in its nonessential qualities, good or bad.


Philip Koch said...

One has to agree with the ideas this Reynolds guy is championing, but good lord is his writing style remote and difficult. I applaud Stape's patience at wading through such a book

It's funny, as so many paintings from the distant past in comparison feel so easy to "read." I was looking at a Ruisdael forest in the Baltimore Museum of Art today and thinking how easy it was to enter this world painted almost 400 years ago.

kev ferrara said...

Au contraire, I find, in their ornate precision, the perspicacious philosophical elucidations of Sir Joshua eschew obfuscation.

Lucy said...

Although the text and language are archaic, the ideas are modern, relevant.

Bill said...

I've always hated the "gift" idea - I guess I have a gift, but I think the gift is the desire and the drive, not the talent. That part I'm still working on. said...

Gosh, I only wish putting in the time and a slow proccess made art but...
I am working up a new series and I started with gouache studies, now I am in the process of scaling them to full size as pencil studies and then I have to custom build the substrate, do the underpainting it art yet?

Some things never change. Here I am sitting with all this information in the cloud, typing on an iPad and getting to wake up every morning to the amazing fact that painting and painters still have an enduring appeal and one still has to make a painting the good old time tested way. I don't think his ideas are so much modern as they are simply true.

Plein Air Gal said...

I think that middle quote speaks not only to the education and training and practice, but also to the processes involved in making a painting. (Most) Folks rarely see or understand all the phases and layers that a painting goes through before it becomes that beautiful finished product - from bare or toned canvas to sketch in to underpainting to layers and strokes ... I think his "small acts" could easily also refer to all the brush strokes involved - each an individual small act. So many folks seem to think that a painting just magically happened and can't understand (or believe) that the masterpiece went through all those "ugly" earlier stages!

billspaintingmn said...

It is through the heart that all "men" are connected.
It is through the arts that communicates to those that will listen.

Philip Koch said...

Stapelton, where art thou? It's afternoon on the 23rd and still no new post for Monday. Hope all is well.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I can read the paintings of 16th century French artists, whose prose would be similarly impenetrable for me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Is his meaning occluded?
His intent shrouded in opaque verbage?
Perhaps a more laconic expositor would providelimpid and truncated prose.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes, they are, and it is interesting to hear that the problems of painting were much the same in his day as ours. Those old guys were not so different.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It's the gift that keeps on taking.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Marian; The prose is archaic, but the ideas are timeless.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Plein air gal:

They imagine we can emote the painting on to the canvas.
Nothing to that!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't have a heart, I have no internal organs, remember?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have been here, I just messed up my dating system and the posts were labeled a day early.I am yet steadfast and constant.

Connie said...

He looks so young to have acquired and worked for such painting skill.