PORTRAIT OF LADY COCKBURN ANDHER CHILDREN

(REYNOLDS)

FREDERIC G. STEPHENS

The number of Reynolds's portraits of ladies has never been given, probably it cannot be ascertained with precision; it is beyond all question marvellous, but not less so is the variety of the attitudes in which he placed the sitters, that of the ideas he expressed, and of the accessories with which they are surrounded; to this end, and to show how successfully he fitted things together, background and figure, compare the portrait of Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Derby splendidly engraved by W. Dickinson, with that of Lady Betty Delmé. It is the same everywhere.

We believe that Reynolds, of that English school of portrait-painters of which he was the founder, was the happiest in introducing backgrounds to his works; to him we are for the most part indebted for that aptitude of one to the other which has so great an effect in putting the eye and mind of the observer into harmonious relationship with what may be called the motive of the portrait, which, indeed, elevates a mere likeness to the character of a picture, and affords a charming field for the display of art in pathos, which is too often neglected, if not utterly ignored, by Reynolds's successors. We think he exhibited more of this valuable characteristic than any other contemporary artist. Lawrence aimed at it, but with effect only commensurate to his success in painting. Of old, as before the Seventeenth Century in Germany and Italy, the art of landscape-painting per se was inefficiently cultivated, at least expressed with irregularity, although occasionally with force enough to show that the pathos as well as the beauty of nature were by no means unappreciated or neglected to anything like the extent which has been commonly represented by writers on Art. Reynolds probably took the hint, as he did many others of the kind, from Vandyck, and gave apt backgrounds to his figures: between these painters no one did much, or even well in the pathetic part of the achievement. Since Reynolds, none have approached him in success. It will be understood that the object of these remarks is not to suggest for the reader's consideration who painted the best landscape backgrounds as landscapes, but who most happily adapted them to his more important themes. We believe Reynolds did so, and will conclude our remarks by another example. The landscape in the distance of The Age of Innocence is as thoroughly in keeping with the subject as it can be: thus here are fields easy to traverse, a few village elms, and just seen above their tops the summits of habitations,—the hint is thus given that the child, all innocent as she is, has not gone far from home, or out of sight of the household to which she belongs....

Portrait of Lady Cockburn and her Children. Reynolds.

Portrait of Lady Cockburn and her Children.
Reynolds.

It has been alleged that Reynolds never, or rarely painted the landscape backgrounds to his pictures, and that they were the work of Peter Toms, R.A., one of his ablest assistants, or of others who were more potent with that branch of Art than the President himself.... It is hard to deny to the mind which conceived the ruling idea of such pictures that honour which is assuredly due to some one, and to whom more probably than to the painter of the faces and designer of the attitudes, which are in such perfect harmony with the subordinate elements about them as to be completed only when the alliance is made. Without this alliance, this harmony of parts, half the significance of many of Reynolds's pictures is obscured. When we have noted this the result is at least instructive, if not convincing, that one mind designed, if one hand did not invariably execute, the whole of any important portrait by our subject.

Our own belief is, that whenever the landscapes or other accessories of his productions are essential to the idea expressed by the work as a whole, then undoubtedly Reynolds wrought these minor parts almost wholly, if not entirely, with his own brushes.