A Discourse Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy on the Distribution of the Prizes, December, 14, 1770, by the President

Gentlemen,—It is not easy to speak with propriety to so many students of different ages and different degrees of advancement.  The mind requires nourishment adapted to its growth; and what may have promoted our earlier efforts, might, retard us in our nearer approaches to perfection.

The first endeavours of a young painter, as I have remarked in a former discourse, must be employed in the attainment of mechanical dexterity, and confined to the mere imitation of the object before him.  Those who have advanced beyond the rudiments, may, perhaps, find advantage in reflecting on the advice which I have likewise given them, when I recommended the diligent study of the works of our great predecessors; but I at the same time endeavoured to guard them against an implicit submission to the authority of any one master, however excellent; or by a strict imitation of his manner, to preclude ourselves from the abundance and variety of nature.  I will now add that nature herself is not to be too closely copied.  There are excellences in the art of painting, beyond what is commonly called the imitation of nature: and these excellences I wish to point out.  The students who, having passed through the initiatory exercises, are more advanced in the art, and who, sure of their hand, have leisure to exert their understanding, must now be told that a mere copier of nature can never produce anything great; can never raise and enlarge the conceptions, or warm the heart of the spectator.

The wish of the genuine painter must be more extensive: instead of endeavouring to amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations, he must endeavour to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas; instead of seeking praise, by deceiving the superficial sense of the spectator, he must strive for fame, by captivating the imagination.

The principle now laid down, that the perfection of this art does not consist in mere imitation, is far from being new or singular.  It is, indeed, supported by the general opinion of the enlightened part of mankind.  The poets, orators, and rhetoricians of antiquity, are continually enforcing this position, that all the arts receive their perfection from an ideal beauty, superior to what is to be found in individual nature.  They are ever referring to the practice of the painters and sculptors of their times, particularly Phidias (the favourite artist of antiquity), to illustrate their assertions.  As if they could not sufficiently express their admiration of his genius by what they knew, they have recourse to poetical enthusiasm.  They call it inspiration; a gift from heaven.  The artist is supposed to have ascended the celestial regions, to furnish his mind with this perfect idea of beauty.  “He,” says Proclus, “who takes for his model such forms as nature produces, and confines himself to an exact imitation of them, will never attain to what is perfectly beautiful.  For the works of nature are full of disproportion, and fall very short of the true standard of beauty.  So that Phidias, when he formed his Jupiter, did not copy any object ever presents to his sight; but contemplated only that image which he had conceived in his mind from Homer’s description.”  And thus Cicero, speaking of the same Phidias: “Neither did this artist,” says he, “when he carved the image of Jupiter or Minerva, set before him any one human figure as a pattern, which he was to copy; but having a more perfect idea of beauty fixed in his mind, this he steadily contemplated, and to the imitation of this all his skill and labour were directed.”

The moderns are not less convinced than the ancients of this superior power existing in the art; nor less conscious of its effects.  Every language has adopted terms expressive of this excellence.  The Gusto grande of the Italians; the Beau ideal of the French and the great style, genius, and taste among the English, are but different appellations of the same thing.  It is this intellectual dignity, they say, that ennobles the painter’s art; that lays the line between him and the mere mechanic; and produces those great effects in an instant, which eloquence and poetry, by slow and repeated efforts, are scarcely able to attain.

Such is the warmth with which both the ancients and moderns speak of this divine principle of the art; but, as I have formerly observed, enthusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge.  Though a student by such praise may have his attention roused, and a desire excited, of running in this great career, yet it is possible that what has been said to excite, may only serve to deter him.  He examines his own mind, and perceives there nothing of that divine inspiration with which he is told so many others have been favoured.  He never travelled to heaven to gather new ideas; and he finds himself possessed of no other qualifications than what mere common observation and a plain understanding can confer.  Thus he becomes gloomy amidst the splendour of figurative declamation, and thinks it hopeless to pursue an object which he supposes out of the reach of human industry.

But on this, as upon many other occasions, we ought to distinguish how much is to be given to enthusiasm, and how much to reason.  We ought to allow for, and we ought to commend, that strength of vivid expression which is necessary to convey, in its full force, the highest sense of the most complete effect of art; taking care at the same time not to lose in terms of vague admiration that solidity and truth of principle upon which alone we can reason, and may be enabled to practise.

It is not easy to define in what this great style consists; nor to describe, by words, the proper means of acquiring it, if the mind of the student should be at all capable of such an acquisition.  Could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius.  But though there neither are, nor can be, any precise invariable rules for the exercise or the acquisition of those great qualities, yet we may as truly say that they always operate in proportion to our attention in observing the works of nature, to our skill in selecting, and to our care in digesting, methodising, and comparing our observations.  There are many beauties in our art, that seem, at first, to lie without the reach of precept, and yet may easily be reduced to practical principles.  Experience is all in all; but it is not every one who profits by experience; and most people err, not so much from want of capacity to find their object, as from not knowing what object to pursue.  This great ideal perfection and beauty are not to be sought in the heavens, but upon the earth.  They are about us, and upon every side of us.  But the power of discovering what is deformed in nature, or in other words, what is particular and uncommon, can be acquired only by experience; and the whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists, in my opinion, in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities, and details of every kind.

All the objects which are exhibited to our view by nature, upon close examination will be found to have their blemishes and defects.  The most beautiful forms have something about them like weakness, minuteness, or imperfection.  But it is not every eye that perceives these blemishes.  It must be an eye long used to the contemplation and comparison of these forms; and which, by a long habit of observing what any set of objects of the same kind have in common, that alone can acquire the power of discerning what each wants in particular.  This long laborious comparison should be the first study of the painter who aims at the greatest style.  By this means, he acquires a just idea of beautiful forms; he corrects nature by herself, her imperfect state by her more perfect.  His eye being enabled to distinguish the accidental deficiencies, excrescences, and deformities of things from their general figures, he makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than any one original; and what may seem a paradox, he learns to design naturally by drawing his figures unlike to any one object.  This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the ideal beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of genius are conducted.  By this Phidias acquired his fame.  He wrought upon a sober principle what has so much excited the enthusiasm of the world; and by this method you, who have courage to tread the same path, may acquire equal reputation.

This is the idea which has acquired, and which seems to have a right to the epithet of Divine; as it may be said to preside, like a supreme judge, over all the productions of nature; appearing to be possessed of the will and intention of the Creator, as far as they regard the external form of living beings.

When a man once possesses this idea in its perfection, there is no danger but that he will he sufficiently warmed by it himself, and be able to warm and ravish every one else.

Thus it is from a reiterated experience, and a close comparison of the objects in nature, that an artist becomes possessed of the idea of that central form, if I may so express it, from which every deviation is deformity.  But the investigation of this form I grant is painful, and I know but of one method of shortening the road; this is, by a careful study of the works of the ancient sculptors; who, being indefatigable in the school of nature, have left models of that perfect form behind them, which an artist would prefer as supremely beautiful, who had spent his whole life in that single contemplation.  But if industry carried them thus far, may not you also hope for the same reward from the same labour?  We have the same school opened to us that was opened to them; for nature denies her instructions to none who desire to become her pupils.

To the principle I have laid down, that the idea of beauty in each species of beings is invariably one, it may be objected that in every particular species there are various central forms, which are separate and distinct from each other, and yet are undeniably beautiful; that in the human figure, for instance, the beauty of the Hercules is one, of the gladiator another, of the Apollo another, which makes so many different ideas of beauty.

It is true, indeed, that these figures are each perfect in their kind, though of different characters and proportions; but still none of them is the representation of an individual, but of a class.  And as there is one general form, which, as I have said, belongs to the human kind at large, so in each of these classes there is one common idea and central form, which is the abstract of the various individual forms belonging to that class.  Thus, though the forms of childhood and age differ exceedingly, there is a common form in childhood, and a common form in age,—which is the more perfect, as it is more remote from all peculiarities.  But I must add further, that though the most perfect forms of each of the general divisions of the human figure are ideal, and superior to any individual form of that class, yet the highest perfection of the human figure is not to be found in any one of them.  It is not in the Hercules, nor in the gladiator, nor in the Apollo; but in that form which is taken from them all, and which partakes equally of the activity of the gladiator, of the delicacy of the Apollo, and of the muscular strength of the Hercules.  For perfect beauty in any species must combine all the characters which are beautiful in that species.  It cannot consist in any one to the exclusion of the rest: no one, therefore, must be predominant, that no one may be deficient.

The knowledge of these different characters, and the power of separating and distinguishing them, is undoubtedly necessary to the painter, who is to vary his compositions with figures of various forms and proportions, though he is never to lose sight of the general idea of perfection in each kind.

There is, likewise, a kind of symmetry or proportion, which may properly be said to belong to deformity.  A figure lean or corpulent, tall or short, though deviating from beauty, may still have a certain union of the various parts, which may contribute to make them, on the whole, not unpleasing.  When the artist has by diligent attention acquired a clear and distinct idea of beauty and symmetry; when he has reduced the variety of nature to the abstract idea; his next task will be to become acquainted with the genuine habits of nature, as distinguished from those of fashion.  For in the same manner, and on the same principles, as he has acquired the knowledge of the real forms of nature, distinct from accidental deformity, he must endeavour to separate simple chaste nature from those adventitious, those affected and forced airs or actions, with which she is loaded by modern education.

Perhaps I cannot better explain what I mean than by reminding you of what was taught us by the Professor of Anatomy, in respect to the natural position and movement of the feet.  He observed that the fashion of turning, them outwards was contrary to the intent of nature, as might be seen from the structure of the bones, and from the weakness that proceeded from that manner of standing.  To this we may add the erect position of the head, the projection of the chest, the walking with straight knees, and many such actions, which are merely the result of fashion, and what nature never warranted, as we are sure that we have been taught them when children.

I have mentioned but a few of those instances, in which vanity or caprice have contrived to distort and disfigure the human form; your own recollection will add to these a thousand more of ill-understood methods, that have been practised to disguise nature, among our dancing-masters, hair-dressers, and tailors, in their various schools of deformity.

However the mechanic and ornamental arts may sacrifice to fashion, she must be entirely excluded from the art of painting; the painter must never mistake this capricious changeling for the genuine offspring of nature; he must divest himself of all prejudices in favour of his age or country; he must disregard all local and temporary ornaments, and look only on those general habits that are everywhere and always the same.  He addresses his works to the people of every country and every age; he calls upon posterity to be his spectators, and says with Zeuxis, In æternitatem pingo.

The neglect of separating modern fashions from the habits of nature, leads to that ridiculous style which has been practised by some painters who have given to Grecian heroes the airs and graces practised in the court of Louis XIV.; an absurdity almost as great as it would have been to have dressed them after the fashion of that court.

To avoid this error, however, and to retain the true simplicity of nature, is a task more difficult than at first sight it may appear.  The prejudices in favour of the fashions and customs that we have been used to, and which are justly called a second nature, make it too often difficult to distinguish that which is natural from that which is the result of education; they frequently even give a predilection in favour of the artificial mode; and almost every one is apt to be guided by those local prejudices who has not chastised his mind, and regulated the instability of his affections, by the eternal invariable idea of nature.

Here, then, as before, we must have recourse to the ancients as instructors.  It is from a careful study of their works that you will be enabled to attain to the real simplicity of nature; they will suggest many observations, which would probably escape you, if your study were confined to nature alone.  And, indeed, I cannot help suspecting, that in this instance the ancients had an easier task than the moderns.  They had, probably, little or nothing to unlearn, as their manners were nearly approaching to this desirable simplicity; while the modern artist, before he can see the truth of things, is obliged to remove a veil, with which the fashion of the times has thought proper to cover her.

Having gone thus far in our investigation of the great style in painting; if we now should suppose that the artist has formed the true idea of beauty, which enables him to give his works a correct and perfect design; if we should suppose also that he has acquired a knowledge of the unadulterated habits of nature, which gives him simplicity; the rest of his talk is, perhaps, less than is generally imagined.  Beauty and simplicity have so great a share in the composition of a great style, that he who has acquired them has little else to learn.  It must not, indeed, be forgot that there is a nobleness of conception, which goes beyond anything in the mere exhibition, even of perfect form; there is an art of animating and dignifying the figures with intellectual grandeur, of impressing the appearance of philosophic wisdom or heroic virtue.  This can only be acquired by him that enlarges the sphere of his understanding by a variety of knowledge, and warms his imagination with the best productions of ancient and modern poetry.

A hand thus exercised, and a mind thus instructed, will bring the art to a higher degree of excellence than, perhaps, it has hitherto attained in this country.  Such a student will disdain the humbler walks of painting, which, however profitable, can never assure him a permanent reputation.  He will leave the meaner artist servilely to suppose that those are the best pictures which are most likely to deceive the spectator.  He will permit the lower painter, like the florist or collector of shells, to exhibit the minute discriminations which distinguish one object of the same species from another; while he, like the philosopher, will consider nature in the abstract, and represent in every one of his figures the character of its species.

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 these smaller objects, which only serve to catch the sense, to divide the attention, and to counteract his great design of speaking to the heart.

This is the ambition I could wish to excite in your minds; and the object I have had in my view, throughout this discourse, is that one great idea which gives to painting its true dignity, that entitles it to the name of a Liberal Art, and ranks it as a sister of poetry.

It may possibly have happened to many young students whose application was sufficient to overcome all difficulties, and whose minds were capable of embracing the most extensive views, that they have, by a wrong direction originally given, spent their lives in the meaner walks of painting, without ever knowing there was a nobler to pursue.  “Albert Durer,” as Vasari has justly remarked, “would probably have been one of the first painters of his age (and he lived in an era of great artists) had he been initiated into those great principles of the art which were so well understood and practised by his contemporaries in Italy.  But unluckily, having never seen or heard of any other manner, he considered his own, without doubt, as perfect.”

As for the various departments of painting, which do not presume to make such high pretensions, they are many.  None of them are without their merit, though none enter into competition with this great universal presiding idea of the art.  The painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters, and who express with precision the various shades of passion, as they are exhibited by vulgar minds (such as we see in the works of Hogarth) deserve great praise; but as their genius has been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise that we give must be as limited as its object.  The merrymaking or quarrelling of the Boors of Teniers; the same sort of productions of Brouwer, or Ostade, are excellent in their kind; and the excellence and its praise will be in proportion, as, in those limited subjects and peculiar forms, they introduce more or less of the expression of those passions, as they appear in general and more enlarged nature.  This principle may be applied to the battle pieces of Bourgognone, the French gallantries of Watteau, and even beyond the exhibition of animal life, to the landscapes of Claude Lorraine, and the sea-views of Vandervelde.  All these painters have, in general, the same right, in different degrees, to the name of a painter, which a satirist, an epigrammatist, a sonnetteer, a writer of pastorals, or descriptive poetry, has to that of a poet.

In the same rank, and, perhaps, of not so great merit, is the cold painter of portraits.  But his correct and just imitation of his object has its merit.  Even the painter of still life, whose highest ambition is to give a minute representation of every part of those low objects, which he sets before him, deserves praise in proportion to his attainment; because no part of this excellent art, so much the ornament of polished life, is destitute of value and use.  These, however, are by no means the views to which the mind of the student ought to be primarily directed.  By aiming at better things, if from particular inclination, or from the taste of the time and place he lives in, or from necessity, or from failure in the highest attempts, he is obliged to descend lower; he will bring into the lower sphere of art a grandeur of composition and character that will raise and ennoble his works far above their natural rank.

A man is not weak, though he may not be able to wield the club of Hercules; nor does a man always practise that which he esteems the beat; but does that which he can best do.  In moderate attempts, there are many walks open to the artist.  But as the idea of beauty is of necessity but one, so there can be but one great mode of painting; the leading principle of which I have endeavoured to explain.

I should be sorry if what is here recommended should be at all understood to countenance a careless or indetermined manner of painting.  For though the painter is to overlook the accidental discriminations of nature, he is to pronounce distinctly, and with precision, the general forms of things.  A firm and determined outline is one of the characteristics of the great style in painting; and, let me add, that he who possesses the knowledge of the exact form, that every part of nature ought to have, will be fond of expressing that knowledge with correctness and precision in all his works.

To conclude: I have endeavoured to reduce the idea of beauty to general principles.  And I had the pleasure to observe that the professor of painting proceeded in the same method, when he showed you that the artifice of contrast was founded but on one principle.  And I am convinced that this is the only means of advancing science, of clearing the mind from a confused heap of contradictory observations, that do but perplex and puzzle the student when he compares them, or misguide him if he gives himself up to their authority; but bringing them under one general head can alone give rest and satisfaction to an inquisitive mind.