During twenty years of war a thousand British artists had struggled to feed their families and their dreams. Not the humblest of them in reward and fame were the caricaturists who filled the press with cartoons of the passing scene. Napoleon was a blessing to these impish geniuses, for their daily satires of “Little Boney”—or the “Mediterranean mulatto,” as the Morning Post called him5—were shots in the arm to a weary “war effort,” and pricks in the pride of the fuming Emperor.
Greatest of these acupunctors was Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827). Born to a rich but speculative trader, he was amply encouraged in his talent for drawing. After studying at the Royal Academy, he enrolled in the École de l’Académie Royale in Paris, returned to England, and soon won acclaim by his drawings. Suddenly impoverished by the ruin of his father in gambling, he was reanimated by a French aunt who sent him £ 35,000. Free to satirize the absurdities and hypocrisies of his time, he drew caricatures of a duchess kissing a butcher for his vote, a fat parson receiving a pig as tithe from a half-starved peasant, a group of naval officers hunting whores ashore. He went on to draw extensive and complex pictures—Vauxhall Gardens, Comforts of Bath, and a hilarious series, nationally famous, The Tours of Dr. Syntax. His anger at politicians, roisterers, and dolts led him to exaggerate the forgivable exaggerations of caricature. Many of his drawings had to be cleansed of their obscenity; his satire lost all healing pity; his later work breathed scorn of the human race, as if there had never been a loving mother or a generous man.
Even more popular were the caricatures of James Gillray (1757–1815); people fought at the bookstores to get the first copies of his cartoons.6 Like Rowlandson he studied at the Royal Academy, and became a finished artist, vivid in imagination but firm in line. He put nearly all his art at the service of the war: he pictured Napoleon as a pygmy, and Josephine as a fishwife; he represented Fox, Sheridan, and Horne Tooke (supporters of the French Revolution) as waiting, in a London club, upon a victorious Revolutionary general. Reprints of his satires—crude in concept, finished in form—circulated throughout Europe, and shared in dethroning Napoleon.7 He died seventeen days before Waterloo.
There were many good engravers in that generation, but William Blake cut deeply enough to survive time’s obliterations. He developed his own methods, and even tried to replace print by etching text and illustration together into copper plates. But his pen outran his graver, and in the end he spoke through poetry.
He was a rebel because he resented his poverty; because the Academy refused to recognize engravers as artists as well as artisans, or to admit their works to its exhibitions; and because he heartily rejected its injunctions to cleave to the rules, traditions, and proprieties of art. “The Enquiry in England,” he declared (c. 1808), “is not whether a Man has talents and genius, but whether he is Passive and Politic and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art. If he is, he is a God Man. If not, he must be starved.”8 He neared this at times, since he received only pittances for drawings and engravings that in the London of 1918 fetched $110,000.9 His twenty-two plates illustrating the Book of Job kept him alive at two pounds per week from 1823 to 1825; they were sold to J. Pierpont Morgan (1907) for £5,600; they are among the finest engravings in history.
Blake was a complex cross between pagan and puritan, classic and romantic. He was enthralled by Michelangelo’s statuary and Sistine Chapel ceiling. He too felt the splendor of the healthy human body; he symbolized it in the print (1780) entitled “Glad Day”—a youth diaphanously clothed, knowing the joy of bounding vitality. Sex plays only a modest part in his art; it entered assertively in his poems, but moderately in his life; he had a helpful and loving wife, who made fidelity bearable. His drawings were at first strictly classical, rating line above color, and form over fancy; but as he advanced in years, and in love with the Old Testament, he let his pencil roam into imaginary figures overwhelmingly robed, and faces worn by the riddles of life.10
In his last years he engraved seven plates for an edition of Dante; on his deathbed (1827) he made one more print of God as “The Ancient of Days” creating the world. It was through his almost supernatural imagination, as well as through the finesse of his line, that he became, a generation after his death, the proclaimed progenitor of the Pre-Raphaelite School. We shall meet him again.
Among the painters the vital question, sometimes involving bread and butter, was: How far should they conform to the advice and tastes of the Academy? Some of its professors gave their highest approval to historical subjects, as revealing famous characters in memorable events. Others praised portraiture as probing and revealing character—and as pleasing contributory notables who wished to be preserved in oil. Very few of the Academic fraternity cared for genre pictures, for these smelled of the commonalty. Least approval of all was accorded to landscape paintings; a Constable, who had lost his heart to them, had to labor in obscurity till he was fifty-three before the Academy allowed him full membership.
In 1792 Sir Joshua Reynolds died, and the Academy chose as its president an American domiciled in England. Benjamin West had been born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 1738. He showed such artistic talent in youth that generous neighbors sent him to study in Philadelphia, then to Italy. After imbibing the classical tradition there in galleries and ruins, he moved to London (1763), painted some lucrative portraits, pleased George III, and advanced to historical themes. His Death of Wolfe (1771), who had snatched Canada from Montcalm and France, shocked the Academy by picturing modern figures in modern dress; but the elders admitted that half a continent was worth an obeisance to pantaloons.
Another American, John Singleton Copley, born near Boston in 1738, won fame with his portraits of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and the Copley family. In 1775 he moved to London, and soon reached his peak with The Death of Chatham (1779). To escape from the neoclassical idealization of historical figures, he painted the scene with a courageous realism which —though it troubled the Academy—effected a revolution in English painting.
The education of the Academy was continued by Johann Heinrich Füssli of Zurich, who in 1764, aged twenty-three, became Henry Fuseli of London. Encouraged by Reynolds, he left England in 1770 for eight years of study in Italy. His flair for heterodox flights of the imagination was not quite cured by classic models and norms. When he returned to London he disturbed some sleeping beauties with The Nightmare (1781), in which a lovely woman dreams that she is approached by a terrifying fiend. (A copy of this hung in Sigmund Freud’s study.) Despite himself and his sarcastic wit, Fuseli became a professor in the Academy, where his lectures eased the transition to Romance and the Pre-Raphaelites.
The difficulty of making a living by painting nature was illustrated by the careers of John Hoppner (1758–1810) and John Crome (1768–1821). Hoppner starved as a lover of landscapes, and then flourished as a painter of portraits, almost rivaling Lawrence in sitters and fees. Nelson sat for him; so did Wellington, Walter Scott, and sundry lords; St. James’s Palace is rich with Hoppner’s legacy. —Crome remained in his native Norwich nearly all his fifty-three years. He worked for a time as a sign painter; studied the pictures of Hobbema and other Dutch masters; and learned from them to relish the simple scenes of common life. Too poor to travel, he sought his subjects in the rural hinterland of Norwich. There he found the perspective which he painted in his finest landscape,Mousehold Heath. Art and philosophy needed no more.
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) followed the primrose path of portraiture. The son of an innkeeper, he received little schooling, little artistic training; it must have disconcerted the Academy to observe how well he succeeded without them. He had an almost natural flair for quickly catching a likeness and putting it down—in boyhood at Bristol with his pencil, in youth at Bath with pastel; only when he moved to London (1786) did he work with oils. Perhaps his physical charm and happy spirits opened hearts and doors to him. While still but twenty he was commissioned to go to Windsor and portray Queen Charlotte Sophia. He succeeded so diplomatically (for she was no beauty) that he was elected to associate membership in the Academy at twenty-two, and to full membership at twenty-five. A hundred notables competed to sit for him. He rejected Cromwell’s advice to paint the warts as well as the dimples; there was no gold in warts. He improved the features of his sitters, who protested not; and what his ladies lacked in beauty he made up by clothing them in gossamer finery, endowing them with lovely hands and fascinating eyes, and casting them in some dramatic pose. Typical of his work is the handsome and striking figure he made of the Prince Regent in 1815. Sometimes, as in the Pinkie of the Huntington Gallery, he achieved a pleasant whimsy, but we miss in his male portraits the strong character that Reynolds had found or fashioned in his sitters. Lawrence earned much, gave generously, and became the idol of his age. When he died a distinguished cortege escorted him to St. Paul’s.
John Constable (1776–1837) insisted on painting landscapes, and earned no bride till forty. His father was a Sussex miller who indulged his son’s talent for drawing and painting, and financed two years of study for him in London. But John’s development was slow; by 1797 he felt that he deserved no further keep; he returned to Sussex to work in his father’s mill. In his spare time he continued to paint. He sent some of his work to the Academy, which offered him admission to its school. So in 1799 he was back in London, supported by a paternal allowance, and encouraged by Benjamin West. A fellow artist, Richard Reinagle, painted an engaging portrait of him in that year.
Perhaps he read Wordsworth’s poems about the scenery around Lake Windermere, for he too saw God in every leaf. In 1806 he toured the Lake District, which let him study mountains embraced by mists, and fields happy under tranquil rains. He returned to London strengthened in his resolve to devote his art to nature. He said of his landscapes that he hoped “to give to one brief moment, caught from fleeting time, a lasting and sober existence.”11 Meanwhile he received incidental commissions that kept him in food and lodging. In 1811, at last, he produced his first acclaimed masterpiece—Dedham Vale, an Essex panorama under a midday sun.
In that year, it seems, he fell in love with Maria Bickell, who welcomed his attentions; but her father forbade her to stoop to so low an income as Constable then earned. Not till five years later, when his father’s death left him an assuring income, did he venture to press his suit. Her father relented, Constable carried off his bartered bride, and flattered her with a portrait that now brightens a Tate Gallery wall. Thereafter he painted the finest landscapes that English art had yet produced—not as exciting as Turner’s, but conveying, with a loving detail that honored every leaf, the peace and green wealth of the English countryside. In that happy period he submitted to the Academy Flatford Mill (1817), The White Horse (1819), The Hay Wain (wagon) (1821), Salisbury Cathedral(1823), and The Cornfield (1826). Each was a masterpiece, and won faint praise.
In 1824 he submitted The Hay Wain for exhibition in the Paris Salon, and in 1825 The White Horse was shown at Lille. Each won a gold medal, and French critics hailed Constable as a master. The London Royal Academy, caught short, at last gave him full membership (1829).
The honor came too late to mean much to him, for in that year his wife died, of tuberculosis probably aggravated by London’s soot. Constable continued to produce such arresting landscapes as Valley Farm and Waterloo Bridge, but nearly all his later work reflected an enduring grief. He wore mourning until his sudden death.