A Discourse Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution of the Prizes, December 10, 1772, by the President

Gentlemen,—I purpose to carry on in this discourse the subject which I began in my last.  It was my wish upon that occasion to incite you to pursue the higher excellences of the art.  But I fear that in this particular I have been misunderstood.  Some are ready to imagine, when any of their favourite acquirements in the art are properly classed, that they are utterly disgraced.  This is a very great mistake: nothing has its proper lustre but in its proper place.  That which is most worthy of esteem in its allotted sphere becomes an object, not of respect, but of derision, when it is forced into a higher, to which it is not suited; and there it becomes doubly a source of disorder, by occupying a situation which is not natural to it, and by putting down from the first place what is in reality of too much magnitude to become with grace and proportion that subordinate station, to which something of less value would be much better suited.

My advice in a word is this: keep your principal attention fixed upon the higher excellences.  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 person of the highest order.

If, when you have got thus far, you can add any, or all, of the subordinate qualifications, it is my wish and advice that you should not neglect them.

But this is as much a matter of circumspection and caution at least as of eagerness and pursuit.

The mind is apt to be distracted by a multiplicity of pursuits; and that scale of perfection, which I wish always to be preserved, is in the greatest danger of being totally disordered, and even inverted.

Some excellences bear to be united, and are improved by union, others are of a discordant nature; and the attempt to join them only produces a harsher jarring of incongruent principles.

The attempt to unite contrary excellences (of form, for instance) in a single figure, can never escape degenerating into the monstrous, but by sinking into the insipid, taking away its marked character, and weakening its expression.

This remark is true to a certain degree with regard to the passions.  If you mean to preserve the most perfect beauty in its most perfect state, you cannot express the passions, which produce (all of them) distortion and deformity, more or less, in the most beautiful faces.

Guido, from want of choice in adapting his subject to his ideas and his powers, or in attempting to preserve beauty where it could not be preserved has in this respect succeeded very ill.  His figures are often engaged in subjects that required great expression: yet his “Judith and Holofernes,” the “Daughter of Herodias with the Baptist’s Head,” the “Andromeda,” and even the “Mothers of the Innocents,” have little more expression than his “Venus attired by the Graces.”

Obvious as these remarks appear, there are many writers on our art, who, not being of the profession, and consequently not knowing what can or what cannot be done, have been very liberal of absurd praises in their descriptions of favourite works.  They always find in them what they are resolved to find.  They praise excellences that can hardly exist together, and above all things are fond of describing with great exactness the expression of a mixed passion, which more particularly appears to me out of the reach of our art.

Such are many disquisitions which I have read on some of the cartoons and other pictures of Raffaelle, where the critics have described their own imagination; or indeed where the excellent master himself may have attempted this expression of passions above the powers of the art; and has, therefore, by an indistinct and imperfect marking, left room for every imagination, with equal probability to find a passion of his own.  What has been, and what can be done in the art, is sufficiently difficult; we need not be mortified or discouraged for not being able to execute the conceptions of a romantic imagination.  Art has its boundaries, though imagination has none.  We can easily, like the ancients, suppose a Jupiter to be possessed of all those powers and perfections which the subordinate Deities were endowed with separately.  Yet, when they employed their art to represent him, they confined his character to majesty alone.  Pliny, therefore, though we are under great obligations to him for the information he has given us in relation to the works of the ancient artists, is very frequently wrong when he speaks of them, which he does very often in the style of many of our modern connoisseurs.  He observes that in a statue of Paris, by Fuphranor, you might discover at the same time three different characters; the dignity of a judge of the goddesses, the lover of Helen, and the conqueror of Achilles.  A statue in which you endeavour to unite stately dignity, youthful elegance, and stern valour, must surely possess none of these to any eminent degree.