Seven Discourses on Art
Sir Joshua Reynolds

Part 3 out of 3

All these fashions are very innocent, neither worth disquisition,
nor any endeavour to alter them, as the change would, in all
probability, be equally distant from nature. The only
circumstances against which indignation may reasonably be moved,
are where the operation is painful or destructive of health, such
as is practised at Otahaiti, and the straight lacing of the English
ladies; of the last of which, how destructive it must be to health
and long life, the professor of anatomy took an opportunity of
proving a few days since in this Academy.

It is in dress as in things of greater consequence. Fashions
originate from those only who have the high and powerful advantages
of rank, birth, and fortune; as many of the ornaments of art, those
at least for which no reason can be given, are transmitted to us,
are adopted, and acquire their consequence from the company in
which we have been used to see them. As Greece and Rome are the
fountains from whence have flowed all kinds of excellence, to that
veneration which they have a right to claim for the pleasure and
knowledge which they have afforded us, we voluntarily add our
approbation of every ornament and every custom that belonged to
them, even to the fashion of their dress. For it may be observed
that, not satisfied with them in their own place, we make no
difficulty of dressing statues of modern heroes or senators in the
fashion of the Roman armour or peaceful robe; we go so far as
hardly to bear a statue in any other drapery.

The figures of the great men of those nations have come down to us
in sculpture. In sculpture remain almost all the excellent
specimens of ancient art. We have so far associated personal
dignity to the persons thus represented, and the truth of art to
their manner of representation, that it is not in our power any
longer to separate them. This is not so in painting; because,
having no excellent ancient portraits, that connection was never
formed. Indeed, we could no more venture to paint a general
officer in a Roman military habit, than we could make a statue in
the present uniform. But since we have no ancient portraits, to
show how ready we are to adopt those kind of prejudices, we make
the best authority among the moderns serve the same purpose. The
great variety of excellent portraits with which Vandyke has
enriched this nation, we are not content to admire for their real
excellence, but extend our approbation even to the dress which
happened to be the fashion of that age. We all very well remember
how common it was a few years ago for portraits to be drawn in this
Gothic dress, and this custom is not yet entirely laid aside. By
this means it must be acknowledged very ordinary pictures acquired
something of the air and effect of the works of Vandyke, and
appeared therefore at first sight to be better pictures than they
really were; they appeared so, however, to those only who had the
means of making this association, for when made, it was
irresistible. But this association is nature, and refers to that
Secondary truth that comes from conformity to general prejudice and
opinion; it is therefore not merely fantastical. Besides the
prejudice which we have in favour of ancient dresses, there may be
likewise other reasons, amongst which we may justly rank the
simplicity of them, consisting of little more than one single piece
of drapery, without those whimsical capricious forms by which all
other dresses are embarrassed.

Thus, though it is from the prejudice we have in favour of the
ancients, who have taught us architecture, that we have adopted
likewise their ornaments; and though we are satisfied that neither
nature nor reason is the foundation of those beauties which we
imagine we see in that art, yet if any one persuaded of this truth
should, therefore, invent new orders of equal beauty, which we will
suppose to be possible, yet they would not please, nor ought he to
complain, since the old has that great advantage of having custom
and prejudice on its side. In this case we leave what has every
prejudice in its favour to take that which will have no advantage
over what we have left, but novelty, which soon destroys itself,
and, at any rate, is but a weak antagonist against custom.

These ornaments, having the right of possession, ought not to be
removed but to make room for not only what has higher pretensions,
but such pretensions as will balance the evil and confusion which
innovation always brings with it.

To this we may add, even the durability of the materials will often
contribute to give a superiority to one object over another.
Ornaments in buildings, with which taste is principally concerned,
are composed of materials which last longer than those of which
dress is composed; it, therefore, makes higher pretensions to our
favour and prejudice.

Some attention is surely required to what we can no more get rid of
than we can go out of ourselves. We are creatures of prejudice; we
neither can nor ought to eradicate it; we must only regulate, it by
reason, which regulation by reason is, indeed, little more than
obliging the lesser, the focal and temporary prejudices, to give
way to those which are more durable and lasting.

He, therefore, who in his practice of portrait painting wishes to
dignify his subject, which we will suppose to be a lady, will not
paint her in the modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is
sufficient to destroy all dignity. He takes care that his work
shall correspond to those ideas and that imagination which he knows
will regulate the judgment of others, and, therefore, dresses his
figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake
of dignity, and preserves something of the modern for the sake of
likeness. By this conduct his works correspond with those
prejudices which we have in favour of what we continually see; and
the relish of the antique simplicity corresponds with what we may
call the, more learned and scientific prejudice.

There was a statue made not long since of Voltaire, which the
sculptor, not having that respect for the prejudices of mankind
which he ought to have, has made entirely naked, and as meagre and
emaciated as the original is said to be. The consequence is what
might be expected; it has remained in the sculptor's shop, though
it was intended as a public ornament and a public honour to
Voltaire, as it was procured at the expense of his cotemporary wits
and admirers.

Whoever would reform a nation, supposing a bad taste to prevail in
it, will not accomplish his purpose by going directly against the
stream of their prejudices. Men's minds must be prepared to
receive what is new to them. Reformation is a work of time. A
national taste, however wrong it may be, cannot be totally change
at once; we must yield a little to the prepossession which has
taken hold on the mind, and we may then bring people to adopt what
would offend them if endeavoured to be introduced by storm. When
Battisto Franco was employed, in conjunction with Titian, Paul
Veronese, and Tintoret, to adorn the library of St. Mark, his work,
Vasari says, gave less satisfaction than any of the others: the
dry manner of the Roman school was very ill calculated to please
eyes that had been accustomed to the luxuriance, splendour, and
richness of Venetian colouring. Had the Romans been the judges of
this work, probably the determination would have been just
contrary; for in the more noble parts of the art Battisto Franco
was, perhaps, not inferior to any of his rivals.

Gentlemen,--It has been the main scope and principal end of this
discourse to demonstrate the reality of a standard in taste, as
well as in corporeal beauty; that a false or depraved taste is a
thing as well known, as easily discovered, as anything that is
deformed, misshapen, or wrong in our form or outward make; and that
this knowledge is derived from the uniformity of sentiments among
mankind, from whence proceeds the knowledge of what are the general
habits of nature, the result of which is an idea of perfect beauty.

If what has been advanced be true, that besides this beauty or
truth which is formed on the uniform eternal and immutable laws of
nature, and which of necessity can be but one; that besides this
one immutable verity there are likewise what we have called
apparent or secondary truths proceeding from local and temporary
prejudices, fancies, fashions, or accidental connection of ideas;
if it appears that these last have still their foundation, however
slender, in the original fabric of our minds, it follows that all
these truths or beauties deserve and require the attention of the
artist in proportion to their stability or duration, or as their
influence is more or less extensive. And let me add that as they
ought not to pass their just bounds, so neither do they, in a well-
regulated taste, at all prevent or weaken the influence of these
general principles, which alone can give to art its true and
permanent dignity.

To form this just taste is undoubtedly in your own power, but it is
to reason and philosophy that you must have recourse; from them we
must borrow the balance by which is to be weighed and estimated the
value of every pretension that intrudes itself on your notice.

The general objection which is made to the introduction of
philosophy into the regions of taste is, that it checks and
restrains the flights of the imagination, and gives that timidity
which an over-carefulness not to err or act contrary to reason is
likely to produce.

It is not so. Fear is neither reason nor philosophy. The true
spirit of philosophy by giving knowledge gives a manly confidence,
and substitutes rational firmness in the place of vain presumption.
A man of real taste is always a man of judgment in other respects;
and those inventions which either disdain or shrink from reason,
are generally, I fear, more like the dreams of a distempered brain
than the exalted enthusiasm of a sound and true genius. In the
midst of the highest flights of fancy or imagination, reason ought
to preside from first to last, though I admit her more powerful
operation is upon reflection.

I cannot help adding that some of the greatest names of antiquity,
and those who have most distinguished themselves in works of genius
and imagination, were equally eminent for their critical skill.
Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Horace; and among the moderns,
Boileau, Corneille, Pope, and Dryden, are at least instances of
genius not being destroyed by attention or subjection to rules and
science. I should hope, therefore, that the natural consequence
likewise of what has been said would be to excite in you a desire
of knowing the principles and conduct of the great masters of our
art, and respect and veneration for them when known.


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