A Discourse Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy, on the Distribution of the Prizes, December 11, 1769, by the President

Gentlemen,—I congratulate you on the honour which you have just received.  I have the highest opinion of your merits, and could wish to show my sense of them in something which possibly may be more useful to you than barren praise.  I could wish to lead you into such a course of study as may render your future progress answerable to your past improvement; and, whilst I applaud you for what has been done, remind you of how much yet remains to attain perfection.

I flatter myself, that from the long experience I have had, and the unceasing assiduity with which I have pursued those studies, in which, like you, I have been engaged, I shall be acquitted of vanity in offering some hints to your consideration.  They are indeed in a great degree founded upon my own mistakes in the same pursuit.  But the history of errors properly managed often shortens the road to truth.  And although no method of study that I can offer will of itself conduct to excellence, yet it may preserve industry from being misapplied.

In speaking to you of the theory of the art, I shall only consider it as it has a relation to the method of your studies.

Dividing the study of painting into three distinct periods, I shall address you as having passed through the first of them, which is confined to the rudiments, including a facility of drawing any object that presents itself, a tolerable readiness in the management of colours, and an acquaintance with the most simple and obvious rules of composition.

This first degree of proficiency is, in painting, what grammar is in literature, a general preparation to whatever species of the art the student may afterwards choose for his more particular application.  The power of drawing, modelling, and using colours is very properly called the language of the art; and in this language, the honours you have just received prove you to have made no inconsiderable progress.

When the artist is once enabled to express himself with some degree of correctness, he must then endeavour to collect subjects for expression; to amass a stock of ideas, to be combined and varied as occasion may require.  He is now in the second period of study, in which his business is to learn all that has hitherto been known and done.  Having hitherto received instructions from a particular master, he is now to consider the art itself as his master.  He must extend his capacity to more sublime and general instructions.  Those perfections which lie scattered among various masters are now united in one general idea, which is henceforth to regulate his taste and enlarge his imagination.  With a variety of models thus before him, he will avoid that narrowness and poverty of conception which attends a bigoted admiration of a single master, and will cease to follow any favourite where he ceases to excel.  This period is, however, still a time of subjection and discipline.  Though the student will not resign himself blindly to any single authority when he may have the advantage of consulting many, he must still be afraid of trusting his own judgment, and of deviating into any track where he cannot find the footsteps of some former master.

The third and last period emancipates the student from subjection to any authority but what he shall himself judge to be supported by reason.  Confiding now in his own judgment, he will consider and separate those different principles to which different modes of beauty owe their original.  In the former period he sought only to know and combine excellence, wherever it was to be found, into one idea of perfection; in this he learns, what requires the most attentive survey and the subtle disquisition, to discriminate perfections that are incompatible with each other.

He is from this time to regard himself as holding the same rank with those masters whom he before obeyed as teachers, and as exercising a sort of sovereignty over those rules which have hitherto restrained him.  Comparing now no longer the performances of art with each other, but examining the art itself by the standard of nature, he corrects what is erroneous, supplies what is scanty, and adds by his own observation what the industry of his predecessors may have yet left wanting to perfection.  Having well established his judgment, and stored his memory, he may now without fear try the power of his imagination.  The mind that has been thus disciplined may be indulged in the warmest enthusiasm, and venture to play on the borders of the wildest extravagance.  The habitual dignity, which long converse with the greatest minds has imparted to him, will display itself in all his attempts, and he will stand among his instructors, not as an imitator, but a rival.

These are the different stages of the art.  But as I now address myself particularly to those students who have been this day rewarded for their happy passage through the first period, I can with no propriety suppose they want any help in the initiatory studies.  My present design is to direct your view to distant excellence, and to show you the readiest path that leads to it.  Of this I shall speak with such latitude as may leave the province of the professor uninvaded, and shall not anticipate those precepts which it is his business to give and your duty to understand.

It is indisputably evident that a great part of every man’s life must be employed in collecting materials for the exercise of genius.  Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory.  Nothing can come of nothing.  He who has laid up no materials can produce no combinations.

A student unacquainted with the attempts of former adventurers is always apt to overrate his own abilities, to mistake the most trifling excursions for discoveries of moment, and every coast new to him for a new-found country.  If by chance he passes beyond his usual limits, he congratulates his own arrival at those regions which they who have steered a better course have long left behind them.

The productions of such minds are seldom distinguished by an air of originality: they are anticipated in their happiest efforts; and if they are found to differ in anything from their predecessors, it is only in irregular sallies and trifling conceits.  The more extensive therefore your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled the more extensive will be your powers of invention; and what may appear still more like a paradox, the more original will be your conceptions.  But the difficulty on this occasion is to determine who ought to be proposed as models of excellence, and who ought to be considered as the properest guides.

To a young man just arrived in Italy, many of the present painters of that country are ready enough to obtrude their precepts, and to offer their own performances as examples of that perfection which they affect to recommend.  The modern, however, who recommends himself as a standard, may justly be suspected as ignorant of the true end, and unacquainted with the proper object of the art which he professes.  To follow such a guide will not only retard the student, but mislead him.

On whom, then, can he rely, or who shall show him the path that leads to excellence?  The answer is obvious: Those great masters who have travelled the same road with success are the most likely to conduct others.  The works of those who have stood the test of ages have a claim to that respect and veneration to which no modern can pretend.  The duration and stability of their fame is sufficient to evince that it has not been suspended upon the slender thread of fashion and caprice, but bound to the human heart by every tie of sympathetic approbation.

There is no danger of studying too much the works of those great men, but how they may be studied to advantage is an inquiry of great importance.

Some who have never raised their minds to the consideration of the real dignity of the art, and who rate the works of an artist in proportion as they excel, or are defective in the mechanical parts, look on theory as something that may enable them to talk but not to paint better, and confining themselves entirely to mechanical practice, very assiduously toil on in the drudgery of copying, and think they make a rapid progress while they faithfully exhibit the minutest part of a favourite picture.  This appears to me a very tedious, and I think a very erroneous, method of proceeding.  Of every large composition, even of those which are most admired, a great part may be truly said to be common-place.  This, though it takes up much time in copying, conduces little to improvement.  I consider general copying as a delusive kind of industry; the student satisfies himself with the appearance of doing something; he falls into the dangerous habit of imitating without selecting, and of labouring without any determinate object; as it requires no effort of the mind, he sleeps over his work; and those powers of invention and composition which ought particularly to be called out and put in action lie torpid, and lose their energy for want of exercise.

It is an observation that all must have made, how incapable those are of producing anything of their own who have spent much of their time in making finished copies.

To suppose that the complication of powers, and variety of ideas necessary to that mind which aspires to the first honours ill the art of painting, can be obtained by the frigid contemplation of a few single models, is no less absurd than it would be in him who wishes to be a poet to imagine that by translating a tragedy he can acquire to himself sufficient knowledge of the appearances of nature, the operations of the passions, and the incidents of life.

The great use in copying, if it be at all useful, should seem to be in learning to colour; yet even colouring will never be perfectly attained by servilely copying the mould before you.  An eye critically nice can only be formed by observing well-coloured pictures with attention: and by close inspection, and minute examination you will discover, at last, the manner of handling, the artifices of contrast, glazing, and other expedients, by which good colourists have raised the value of their tints, and by which nature has been so happily imitated.

I must inform you, however, that old pictures deservedly celebrated for their colouring are often so changed by dirt and varnish, that we ought not to wonder if they do not appear equal to their reputation in the eyes of unexperienced painters, or young students.  An artist whose judgment is matured by long observation, considers rather what the picture once was, than what it is at present.  He has acquired a power by habit of seeing the brilliancy of tints through the cloud by which it is obscured.  An exact imitation, therefore, of those pictures, is likely to fill the student’s mind with false opinions, and to send him back a colourist of his own formation, with ideas equally remote from nature and from art, from the genuine practice of the masters and the real appearances of things.

Following these rules, and using these precautions, when you have clearly and distinctly learned in what good colouring consists, you cannot do better than have recourse to nature herself, who is always at hand, and in comparison of whose true splendour the best coloured pictures are but faint and feeble.

However, as the practice of copying is not entirely to be excluded, since the mechanical practice of painting is learned in some measure by it, let those choice parts only be selected which have recommended the work to notice.  If its excellence consists in its general effect, it would be proper to make slight sketches of the machinery and general management of the picture.  Those sketches should be kept always by you for the regulation of your style.  Instead of copying the touches of those great masters, copy only their conceptions.  Instead of treading in their footsteps, endeavour only to keep the same road.  Labour to invent on their general principles and way of thinking.  Possess yourself with their spirit.  Consider with yourself how a Michael Angelo or a Raffaelle would have treated this subject: and work yourself into a belief that your picture is to be seen and criticised by them when completed.  Even an attempt of this kind will rouse your powers.

But as mere enthusiasm will carry you but a little way, let me recommend a practice that may be equivalent, and will perhaps more efficaciously contribute to your advancement, than even the verbal corrections of those masters themselves, could they be obtained.  What I would propose is, that you should enter into a kind of competition, by painting a similar subject, and making a companion to any picture that you consider as a model.  After you have finished your work, place it near the model, and compare them carefully together.  You will then not only see, but feel your own deficiencies more sensibly than by precepts, or any other means of instruction.  The true principles of painting will mingle with your thoughts.  Ideas thus fixed by sensible objects, will be certain and definitive; and sinking deep into the mind, will not only be more just, but more lasting than those presented to you by precepts only: which will, always be fleeting, variable, and undetermined.

This method of comparing your own efforts with those of some great master, is indeed a severe and mortifying task, to which none will submit, but such as have great views, with fortitude sufficient to forego the gratifications of present vanity for future honour.  When the student has succeeded in some measure to his own satisfaction, and has felicitated himself on his success, to go voluntarily to a tribunal where he knows his vanity must be humbled, and all self-approbation must vanish, requires not only great resolution, but great humility.  To him, however, who has the Ambition to be a real master, the solid satisfaction which proceeds from a consciousness of his advancement (of which seeing his own faults is the first step) will very abundantly compensate for the mortification of present disappointment.  There is, besides, this alleviating circumstance.  Every discovery he makes, every acquisition of knowledge he attains, seems to proceed from his own sagacity; and thus he acquires a confidence in himself sufficient to keep up the resolution of perseverance.

We all must have experienced how lazily, and consequently how ineffectually, instruction is received when forced upon the mind by others.  Few have been taught to any purpose who have not been their own teachers.  We prefer those instructions which we have given ourselves, from our affection to the instructor; and they are more effectual, from being received into the mind at the very time when it is most open and eager to receive them.

With respect to the pictures that you are to choose for your models, I could wish that you would take the world’s opinion rather than your own.  In other words, I would have you choose those of established reputation rather than follow your own fancy.  If you should not admire them at first, you will, by endeavouring to imitate them, find that the world has not been mistaken.

It is not an easy task to point out those various excellences for your imitation which he distributed amongst the various schools.  An endeavour to do this may perhaps be the subject of some future discourse.  I will, therefore, at present only recommend a model for style in painting, which is a branch of the art more immediately necessary to the young student.  Style in painting is the same as in writing, a power over materials, whether words or colours, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed.  And in this Lodovico Carrache (I mean in his best works) appears to me to approach the nearest to perfection.  His unaffected breadth of light and shadow, the simplicity of colouring, which holding its proper rank, does not draw aside the least part of the attention from the subject, and the solemn effect of that twilight which seems diffused over his pictures, appear to me to correspond with grave and dignified subjects, better than the more artificial brilliancy of sunshine which enlightens the pictures of Titian.  Though Tintoret thought that Titian’s colouring was the model of perfection, and would correspond even with the sublime of Michael Angelo; and that if Angelo had coloured like Titian, or Titian designed like Angelo, the world would once have had a perfect painter.

It is our misfortune, however, that those works of Carrache which I would recommend to the student are not often found out of Bologna.  The “St. Francis in the midst of his Friars,” “The Transfiguration,” “The Birth of St. John the Baptist,” “The Calling of St. Matthew,” the “St. Jerome,” the fresco paintings in the Zampieri Palace, are all worthy the attention of the student.  And I think those who travel would do well to allot a much greater portion of their time to that city than it has been hitherto the custom to bestow.

In this art, as in others, there are many teachers who profess to show the nearest way to excellence, and many expedients have been invented by which the toil of study might be saved.  But let no man be seduced to idleness by specious promises.  Excellence is never granted to man but as the reward of labour.  It argues, indeed, no small strength of mind to persevere in habits of industry, without the pleasure of perceiving those advances; which, like the hand of a clock, whilst they make hourly approaches to their point, yet proceed so slowly as to escape observation.  A facility of drawing, like that of playing upon a musical instrument, cannot be acquired but by an infinite number of acts.  I need not, therefore, enforce by many words the necessity of continual application; nor tell you that the port-crayon ought to be for ever in your hands.  Various methods will occur to you by which this power may be acquired.  I would particularly recommend that after your return from the academy (where I suppose your attendance to be constant) you would endeavour to draw the figure by memory.  I will even venture to add, that by perseverance in this custom, you will become able to draw the human figure tolerably correct, with as little effort of the mind as to trace with a pen the letters of the alphabet.

That this facility is not unattainable, some members in this academy give a sufficient proof.  And, be assured, that if this power is not acquired whilst you are young, there will be no time for it afterwards: at least, the attempt will be attended with as much difficulty as those experience who learn to read or write after they have arrived to the age of maturity.

But while I mention the port-crayon as the student’s constant companion, he must still remember that the pencil is the instrument by which he must hope to obtain eminence.  What, therefore, I wish to impress upon you is, that whenever an opportunity offers, you paint your studies instead of drawing them.  This will give you such a facility in using colours, that in time they will arrange themselves under the pencil, even without the attention of the hand that conducts it.  If one act excluded the other, this advice could not with any propriety be given.  But if painting comprises both drawing and colouring and if by a short struggle of resolute industry the same expedition is attainable in painting as in drawing on paper, I cannot see what objection can justly be made to the practice; or why that should be done by parts, which may be done altogether.

If we turn our eyes to the several schools of painting, and consider their respective excellences, we shall find that those who excel most in colouring pursued this method.  The Venetian and Flemish schools, which owe much of their fame to colouring, have enriched the cabinets of the collectors of drawings with very few examples.  Those of Titian, Paul Veronese, Tintoret, and the Bassans, are in general slight and undetermined.  Their sketches on paper are as rude as their pictures are excellent in regard to harmony of colouring.  Correggio and Barocci have left few, if any, finished drawings behind them.  And in the Flemish school, Rubens and Vandyke made their designs for the most part either in colours or in chiaroscuro.  It is as common to find studies of the Venetian and Flemish painters on canvas, as of the schools of Rome and Florence on paper.  Not but that many finished drawings are sold under the names of those masters.  Those, however, are undoubtedly the productions either of engravers or of their scholars who copied their works.

These instructions I have ventured to offer from my own experience; but as they deviate widely from received opinions, I offer them with diffidence; and when better are suggested, shall retract them without regret.

There is one precept, however, in which I shall only be opposed by the vain, the ignorant, and the idle.  I am not afraid that I shall repeat it too often.  You must have no dependence on your own genius.  If you have great talents, industry will improve them: if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency.  Nothing is denied to well-directed labour: nothing is to be obtained without it.  Not to enter into metaphysical discussions on the nature or essence of genius, I will venture to assert, that assiduity unabated by difficulty, and a disposition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit, will produce effects similar to those which some call the result of natural powers.

Though a man cannot at all times, and in all places, paint or draw, yet the mind can prepare itself by laying in proper materials, at all times, and in all places.  Both Livy and Plutarch, in describing Philopoemen, one of the ablest generals of antiquity, have given us a striking picture of a mind always intent on its profession, and by assiduity obtaining those excellences which some all their lives vainly expect from Nature.  I shall quote the passage in Livy at length, as it runs parallel with the practice I would recommend to the painter, sculptor, or architect.

“Philopoemen was a man eminent for his sagacity and experience in choosing ground, and in leading armies; to which he formed his mind by perpetual meditation, in times of peace as well as war.  When, in any occasional journey, he came to a straight difficult passage, if he was alone, he considered with himself, and if he was in company he asked his friends what it would be best to do if in this place they had found an enemy, either in the front, or in the rear, on the one side, or on the other.  ‘It might happen,’ says he, ‘that the enemy to be opposed might come on drawn up in regular lines, or in a tumultuous body, formed only by the nature of the place.’  He then considered a little what ground he should take; what number of soldiers he should use, and what arms he should give them; where he should lodge his carriages, his baggage, and the defenceless followers of his camp; how many guards, and of what kind, he should send to defend them; and whether it would be better to press forward along the pass, or recover by retreat his former station: he would consider likewise where his camp could most commodiously be formed; how much ground he should enclose within his trenches; where he should have the convenience of water; and where he might find plenty of wood and forage; and when he should break up his camp on the following day, through what road he could most safely pass, and in what form he should dispose his troops.  With such thoughts and disquisitions he had from his early years so exercised his mind, that on these occasions nothing could happen which he had not been already accustomed to consider.”

I cannot help imagining that I see a promising young painter, equally vigilant, whether at home, or abroad in the streets, or in the fields.  Every object that presents itself is to him a lesson.  He regards all nature with a view to his profession; and combines her beauties, or corrects her defects.  He examines the countenance of men under the influence of passion; and often catches the most pleasing hints from subjects of turbulence or deformity.  Even bad pictures themselves supply him with useful documents; and, as Leonardo da Vinci has observed, he improves upon the fanciful images that are sometimes seen in the fire, or are accidentally sketched upon a discoloured wall.

The artist who has his mind thus filled with ideas, and his hand made expert by practice, works with ease and readiness; whilst he who would have you believe that he is waiting for the inspirations of genius, is in reality at a loss how to beam, and is at last delivered of his monsters with difficulty and pain.

The well-grounded painter, on the contrary, has only maturely to consider his subject, and all the mechanical parts of his art follow without his exertion, Conscious of the difficulty of obtaining what he possesses he makes no pretensions to secrets, except those of closer application.  Without conceiving the smallest jealousy against others, he is contented that all shall be as great as himself who are willing to undergo the same fatigue: and as his pre-eminence depends not upon a trick, he is free from the painful suspicions of a juggler, who lives in perpetual fear lest his trick should be discovered.