Crossed Palettes

Ronald Paulson

  • Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in 18th-Century England by David Solkin
    Yale, 312 pp, £40.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 300 05741 5

There are two British world-class painters, Turner and Constable; but there are a number of others – at least as original and interesting as their contemporaries on the Continent – who created the English School of painting in the first two thirds of the 18th century. Starting with Hogarth, the first major native-born painter, they can be roughly divided into those who followed academic precepts, often slavishly but sometimes imaginatively (Reynolds, Wilson, Barry and West), and those whose paintings were, in important ways, anti-academic, or ‘English’: Hogarth himself, Zoffany, Wright of Derby, Stubbs, Gainsborough, Rowlandson and Blake. The second group all shared something of Hogarth’s anti-authoritarian scepticism. Turner acknowledged his allegiance to it when he donated Hogarth’s palette to the Royal Academy, while Constable donated Reynolds’s.

This opposition, of the academic and the anti-academic, was Hogarth’s. It was also mine, in Emblem and Expression (1975) and elsewhere. The question it prompts is whether it is more accurate to regard the anti-academic painters as a separate tradition or subsume them under the academic rubric as academics manqués. The latter was Reynolds’s view, laid out in the discourses he delivered as President of the Royal Academy. It was re-created by John Barrell in his influential Political Theory of Painting (1986). Drawing on J.G.A. Pocock’s politics of civic humanism, Barrell replaced the two traditions of painting with a tradition of academic theory – from Shaftesbury to Reynolds and so on – which hypothesised an idealising, heroic painting based on public spirit and dedicated to the celebration of Whig politicians in Roman dress. Drawing on Foucault’s concept of ‘discourse’, Barrell argued that civic humanism was the discourse; artists could not think outside its terms, though the terms were adjusted in various ways by later theorists when the public dimension of civic humanism seemed to be privatised by an urban commercial culture. In Barrell’s account the discourse of civic humanism suppressed or at best subordinated all others, whether religious (Anglican, Dissenter, Deist) or literary (satiric, pastoral, georgic) or simply anti-civic humanist. Barrell’s own discourse replaced the painters themselves by Shaftesbury, Addison, Francis Hutcheson, George Turnbull and the Reynolds of the Discourses; partly because he was writing a history of theory, partly because the painters did not correspond to the theory.

David Solkin’s Painting for Money returns the painters to the story. Hogarth is here as well as other anti-civic humanist painters, and there is even a spokesman for the opposition to Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville. But Mandeville is presented as an isolated crank, ‘the villain of our piece’, and Solkin still assumes that a dominant discourse defined, determined and explained the products of the painters. To accommodate the reality, however, he replaces both Shaftesbury’s civic humanism and Mandeville’s scepticism with the politeness advocated by Addison’s Spectator, arguing that the Spectator modulated Shaftesbury’s aristocratic discourse into a bourgeois discourse of refinement. If the painters cannot qualify as civic humanist, Solkin absorbs them into a discourse of politeness.

His thesis is that in every art form ‘commerce ... tamed passion into refinement’ and that the discourse of deportment rendered citizens amenable to the post-revolutionary government, keeping both painters and consumers in their places. The chapters focus on social events embodying that discourse: the development of small group portraits (the ‘conversation piece’) in the 1720s, of public pleasure gardens in the 1730s and charity hospitals in the 1740s, and of art exhibitions and the Royal Academy in the 1760s. The artists who figure prominently comprise a third group, of distinctly minor painters (Hayman, Gravelot, Mercier, Highmore, Penny) who do not show Hogarth’s impatience with academic discourse while painting in what for Reynolds was a distressingly unacademic way. But Solkin lumps all of them, together with Hogarth, under the rubric of politeness. The dominant figures remain the theorists – Shaftesbury. Hutcheson, Addison, and Turnbull. Still off-limits is Hogarth the theorist, which means ignoring the one major aesthetic text in the anti-Shaftesbury line (its importance obvious from the violent responses it evoked): The Analysis of Beauty (1753).

Solkin has made an intelligent effort to get at the social dimension of the paintings through the analysis of contemporary writings. He also has an acute enough eye that he can sometimes override the texts in favour of the visual evidence. On the whole, however, his efforts at definition are hampered by his reliance on concepts drawn not only from John Barrell, but from Habermas, Lawrence Klein, Howard Caygill, Terry Eagleton and Bakhtin, as restated by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White. The result is both fashionably cultural-materialist and safely old art-historical, supposing paintings to be socially determined primarily by discursive texts of the sort art historians require to explain an artist’s intention.

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