Sunday, August 22, 2010

The discourses of Joshua Reynolds

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Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 was a fashionable English portrait painter and was one of the most successful portrait painters in English history. England produced a lot of great portrait painters and he is remembered as one of its finest.Reynolds was a founding member of the Royal Academy and was its first president. He painted about three thousand portraits. Reynolds was a friend and companion to Dr. Johnson, and Edward Burke so he kept company with some of the finest minds of his generation. Boswells life of Dr. Johnson is dedicated to Reynolds.

Between 1769 and 1790 Reynolds delivered a series of lectures on art that were later published as
"The Discourses of Joshua Reynolds". When I was a student of Ives Gammell, this book was required reading and Gammell would often quote it. Many of the obscure books from the artistic past have been made available in recent years and that is a good thing. However they have tended to be "how to" books rather than books written by artists on the larger subject of art and aesthetics. The few books of this sort referred to these days are 20th century books like Hawthorne on painting.

Joshua Reynolds book is a little difficult to read and I think a lot of it is of limited usefulness to a painter today. However there are passages which are valuable. I will mine a number of these from the text for you as I think they are great advice for painters. The entire book is available online as a PDF and you can find it here. I am going to present the words of Reynolds in italics, so you can know them from my own. Here is the first followed by my own annotation.

It has been my uniform endeavour since I first addressed you from this place to impress you strongly with one ruling idea I wished you to be persuaded that success in your art depends almost entirely on your own industry but the industry which I principally recommended is not the industry of the hands but of the mind

In other words, Your success in art is up to you and you must work to have it. By work Reynolds means an effort of the mind, a study by the intellect. He means we must work to perfect our understanding of art. Art is a mental skill, not a manual, or a copyists skill.

Those who have undertaken to write on our art and have represented it as a kind of inspiration as a gift bestowed upon peculiar favourites at their birth seem to insure a much more favourable disposition from their readers and have a much more captivating and liberal air than he who attempts to examine coldly whether there are any means by which this art may be acquired how the mind may be strengthened and expanded and what guides will show the way to eminence

Read that a couple more times until you have followed what he said, because it is deeply perceptive. I know for some of you the language is dated, so I will paraphrase it in modern English below. Perhaps this is unnecessary, but as I can't see your faces, nor can you raise your hand in this class I will to be sure all the readers have followed it. The elegance of Reynolds writing and its precision is irreducible, but here that is:

Writers on art who want the public to like them and appear enlightened and interesting have represented talent in art as an inborn gift for a special few. They have done this rather than analyze dispassionately whether the artist can increase his knowledge and what steps he might take to outstanding ability.
I will return with more of this tomorrow.


Chris said...

Great timing for this post. I printed and bound my own copy of this about a month ago - slowly working through it, I'm sure I'll get more out of it on subsequent readings, and your insights will kick it up a notch as well.

Bob Carter said...

I see that Amazon is offering a Kindle version for $3.65 under the title "Seven Discourses on Art" and categorized as "Classic Fiction". :j

Unknown said...

Thank you for the link, Stapleton. The language is not impenetrable, and there is much food for thought therein. Cool!

Mary Byrom said...

Just catching up. Nice posts on color. And now thinking ! My favorite topic.

sarah meredith said...

I have just discovered your blog and feel like I have come upon a remarkable trove of technical information, scholarship and wisdom. Thank you so much.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

This is a wonderful book. Thanks translating.
My teacher Paul Ingbretson used to joke that reading chapter 11 of this book would keep up from having to file chapter ll.
So far, for me it has worked.
I do suggest that if you read the book that you do so in a sensory deprivation tank.

Robert J. Simone said...

Reminds me of Payne's quote,"Nature does not bestow her gifts on lazy poets and luxurioius darlings but imposes tasks when she offers her wisdom." Not really sure if I got it verbatim but the sentement is there. Hard work and study are more advantageous than natural ability.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It does take some effort to read.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Can I get that in avocado?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Well the language is difficult anyway, but worth the effort.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It hurts when I think.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey, thanks. I appreciate that you have found it useful.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have a slightly used wax injection module if you are interested.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hi there, long time , no see.
I wonder if Payne was paraphrasing Reynolds. I am certain he would have read him.