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.

Before Hogarth can develop his type of conversation piece he must have read Hutcheson’s defence of private luxury in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtuè (1725). Thus Solkin offers a ‘refined’ Hogarth, a Shaftesburian and anti-Mandevillian who in his conversations defends ‘the delight men take in acquiring wealth and fine possessions’. Not even Hogarth can resist conforming, because whatever an artist does is contained and turned to the ends of the dominant discourse (the ruling order). The most he can do is introduce an occasional ‘joke’ (a subversive dog) into a conversation piece, which ‘may have provided a source of positive reassurance to a culture that had still entirely to resolve its deeply conflicting feelings about the morality (or lack thereof) of luxurious behaviour’. Hogarth’s parody, a drunken revel called A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), is therefore just another defence of the good order of ‘the social realm’. This scene of total disorder must, Solkin believes, imply a scene ‘in which the getting and spending of wealth could be endowed with the character of virtue’.

Between Hogarth’s first conversations of 1728-30 and his ‘modern moral subjects’ and mature conversations there appeared a more nuanced, more satiric text on the uses of riches than Hutcheson’s – Pope’s ‘Epistle to Burlington’ (1731), a poem Hogarth is certain to have read. Why does Solkin not mention this poem, which might be used to distinguish phases of Hogarth’s conversation-painting? Because it is a ‘literary’, not a discursive, text by a Shaftesburian. As the conversations progress into the 1730s the ‘jokes’ increase, as Solkin notes, but without asking where it leads: precisely into the anti-Shaftesburian, anti-Hutchesonian, and pro-Mandevillian Hogarth who (to judge by his earliest satiric works) may all along have been the mainline Hogarth. Hogarth’s career forces Solkin to so modify his arguments that he ends by calling it ‘idiosyncratic’.

Solkin’s analysis is valid insofar as it shows that at the outset, to meet the pressures of the market and particularly the criticisms of luxury central to civic humanism, Hogarth developed a successful way of presenting people in the context of their luxuries without noticeably compromising their virtue. But too much is omitted. For Hogarth the discourse of art came first, and this was a reaction against the discourse of civic humanism. He took his conversation from the French fête champêtre or galante of Watteau and his followers. As in France it was a reaction against pompous official art – those heroic ‘royal’ portraits – a reaction that was both artistic and economic. Watteau’s conversations introduced sculpted Venuses and obscene dogs as a way of playing art off against nature, and he always focused on love and dalliance, not on domestic groups. Hogarth’s ‘families’ retain something of Watteau’s sense of dalliance and much of his play between nature and art. The furnishings and paintings have a genealogy that would suggest ‘art’ rather than (or as well as) luxury; and the intrusive dog is less a ‘joke’ than an example of nature testing the forms of art and, by implication, the social graces of the families.

Solkin argues that the polite tradition laid down a pattern for unified families and the ‘good society’. The children embody such themes as nurture and/or the process of civilising. Of course, in his conversations Hogarth gave the advantage to unity, but as he moved on to ‘modern moral subjects’ he increasingly emphasised the variety to be discovered in apparent unity. The children now tend to be examples less of the process of civilising than of pre-social forms of nature, in some ways an extension of the dog. When he took to painting conversations Hogarth was known primarily for his talent at catching likenesses and for the wit and satire of his engravings. While painting portraits called for a reining in of these talents, it also attracted sitters who appreciated liveliness in their portrait groups.

For his graphic model of the Hogarth conversation Solkin cites the Dutch genre painters, who used sculptures and dogs for moral purposes, primarily admonitory. He draws attention to Joseph van Aken’s English versions of Dutch conversations. But in the context of English society in the mid-1720s (the society of Pope, Swift and Gay), van Aken’s classical sculptures would have been read as mock-heroic comments on the scene pictured. A Bacchus standing above a tea service, which Solkin reads as admonitory (‘Better drink tea, not strong spirits’), would more likely – depending on whose house it hung in, but certainly if seen by Hogarth – have suggested that the tea drinkers were to Bacchus and his grapes as Belinda and her friends in The Rape of the Lock were to Achilles and his wrath. Solkin has nothing to say about the contemporary controversies over pastoral, the experiments of Ambrose Philips, Pope and Gay concerning the primacy of art or nature, or Classical or indigenous culture; nor about the fact that the starting point and inspiration for Hogarth’s conversations was Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the subject of his first mature conversation.

Solkin may, however, be right that Hogarth was ‘idiosyncratic’. Certainly Francis Hayman, the closest parallel to him, behaved ‘politely’. The test case is Vauxhall Gardens, which Hayman decorated between the 1730s and 1760s (this is also one of Solkin’s most original and suggestive chapters). In the pleasure garden commerce did refine the passions because Jonathan Tyers, Vauxhall’s projector, ‘devoted a great deal of time and energy to devising ways of keeping vulgar elements outside his establishment’. He cleaned up the old garden, excluding the harlots and pimps who traded there, enclosing it and charging admission to keep out ‘the inferior sort’. What this meant in terms of art was the replacement of hurdy-gurdy players and penny prints of vulgar subjects by an orchestra playing Handel and rustic scenes painted by Hayman on a large enough scale to appear historical.

The paintings of rustic scenes were, according to Solkin (as in his reading of Hogarth’s Midnight Modern Conversation), ‘negative examples that fostered the sort of conduct Tyers invoked his clientele to embrace’. ‘If Vauxhall’s most important political function was to confirm the polite character of its public, it did so above all by defining that character over and against representations of the popular.’ The underlying assumption is that the audience wanted to ‘define’ themselves or ‘confirm’ themselves as ‘innocent and polite’. One difference between Hogarth and Hayman is that this need to ‘confirm’ or ‘embrace’ politeness was precisely the pose Hogarth satirised in his Harlot and Rake. Thus Hayman painted the rustic subjects in the ostensibly polite setting of a supper box and avoided any ‘transgression’. In his Play at See-Saw Solkin detects a ‘transgressive’ mixing of social levels, with a gentleman in a bag-wig making a pass at a plebeian girl. But I see no sign of a bag-wig or any sort of a wig (which might designate a gentleman) on the boy at the left. His hair is his own and untended, though held at the back by a ribbon, like that of his opposite (rival?) on the other end of the see-saw. Hayman has in fact avoided the ribald potential of a see-saw by placing the boy at the high point and the girl at the low (cf. Fragonard’s use of the same situation in The Swing).

Hogarth, however, is supposed to have had copies of his Four Times of the Day (1738) hanging in one of the supper boxes at Vauxhall. The painting unmistakably mixes high and low, heterosexuals and homosexuals, genders and races. Lusty women figure in three scenes and a man in drag in the fourth. The two painters shared the same audience in the supper boxes, but Hayman confirmed while Hogarth questioned. The audience, ‘polite’ or not, presumably loved both. The contrast is also evident in their adjacent paintings of Moses in the Foundling Hospital; and when the break came in the 1750s, over whether to have an official state academy on the French model, Hayman sided with the pro-academy group.

Benjamin West, a future PRA, initially at least sided with Hogarth. His Venus and Cupid of 1764 was not, as Solkin would have it, merely a sport (‘startlingly lascivious’ he comments). More likely West was following Hogarth’s aesthetic theory, painting in the year of Hogarth’s death both another version of the Choice of Hercules and the Venus and Cupid. He was picking up the radical anti-Shaftesbury gesture which Hogarth had initiated in his Harlot’s Progress of 1732 by focusing on a woman, indeed a Venus, as the ‘transgression’ who embodies everything Shaftesbury rejected (or relegated to the sinister threat of female Pleasure tempting the manliness of Heroic Virtue). She takes the place of Hercules in a send-up of the paradigm Shaftesbury recommended to proper history painters: the Choice of Hercules. If that is not the announcement of a counter-tradition, I don’t know what is.

Solkin even draws attention to Fulvia, Mandeville’s spokesperson for common sense, against the idealism of the Shaftsburians, in his dialogue on painting. In works from the 1730s to the 1750s and in The Analysis of Beauty, which is centered on Venus (though a contemporary, ‘living’ Venus), Hogarth focused on Fulvia as the symbol of anti-Shaftsburian statements about art. In 1764 for West to paint a Venus would have been an ideological statement.

West subsequently adjusted to the demands of his academic colleagues in the Royal Academy. At first he did so with Classical scenes showing a mourning female, a figure Solkin would identify with polite sensibility but who might also be a modification of Hogarth’s Venus by way of his Sigismunda of 1759. Finally in 1769, for the first exhibition of the RA, West painted a Regulus, ‘an exemplary civic protagonist’ who ‘instantiates the virtues of a superior class of men’: at long last a painting that illustrates the civic humanist thesis and satisfies both Reynolds and Solkin.

When West’s polite, non-RA contemporary Joseph Wright of Derby focuses on a sculpture of Venus being sketched by male artists in his Academy by Lamplight he is echoing Hogarth’s earth-goddess (Nature) in his subscription ticket for the Harlot. Solkin does not see this. Nevertheless, it is in this chapter – the most successful of the book, with a quite brilliant analysis of Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight – that he comes to acknowledge Hogarth’s influence on Wright: he refers to the ‘motives that he shared with Hogarth, to whose modern moral subjects Wright was so deeply indebted’. And at this point, too, he finally reveals what has happened: at the founding of the Royal Academy there were ‘many artists’ who ‘were still prepared to continue the fight’ Hogarth ‘had begun’, and he names these as Wright, Stubbs and Zoffany, ‘a tiny rump of leading painters who would have nothing to do with the newly founded Academy’. He admits that, in the period between Addison’s theory and Wright’s painting, something was going on other than the refinement of passion by commerce.

Still he follows critics of the 1760s in lumping together the Hayman-Penny sort of small, English, unassuming, accurate representation (Hogarth’s ‘exhibition of familiar life’) with the ambitious, experimental, demanding work done by Hogarth, Wright, Stubbs and Zoffany. For him Wright shares with Hogarth not a reaction against the theory of Shaftesbury but the expression of ‘the character of social conditions and relations in a commercial world’. And he locates a text for Wright’s candlelit paintings in a revision of Shaftesbury, George Turnbull’s Treatise of Ancient Painting (1740), although the doctrines Solkin finds there (the ‘alliance between painting and natural philosophy’ and ‘the representation of “accidental” forms’) could as easily have been read in The Analysis of Beauty, which advocated both but specifically in the context of anti-academic controversy.

Once West has painted his Regulus, Solkin dismisses the Gladiator and Academy by Lamplight as ‘the most memorable symbols of the consensual visual culture characteristic of the period just prior to the founding of the Academy’. He is echoing the critics who, by the 1770s, were calling Wright ‘deficient in taste. He seems to delight in ugliness and confusion.’ That is the voice of the revived Shaftesbury tradition commenting on the tradition of Hogarth.

Solkin’s history – serious, considered, often subtly argued – has important virtues. In some senses a more balanced history emerges from an account of a dominant discourse and deviations, adjustments and containments, than from an agon of conflicting ones or a plethora of independent ones. Finally, however, the best he can do is link a weak theory (politeness is a weak version of civic humanism) to minor painting, and only at the end, with the founding of the RA, celebrate the belated marriage of the strong version of the theory (Reynolds’s academicism) with minor painting that does attempt to correspond to the theory.

It is difficult to think of a major artist of the first half of the 18th century, whether in literature or painting, who actually undertook the ‘task of legitimising the elegant pleasures enabled by commercial wealth’, ‘of cleansing luxury of its long-standing associations with human vice and folly’ and removing ‘polite enjoyment as far as possible from any stink of sensual vulgarity’. It would be difficult to call Swift, Pope, Gay, Fielding or Smollett polite and refined, except in so far as ‘gross’ materials are handled with an exaggerated politeness that questions the efficacy of politeness (as earlier it did of the heroic) and of art itself. These artists merely toyed with the concept of politeness, playing it off as style against content – Lady Booby’s and Slipslop’s genteelisms against their Mandevillian desires. In the Harlot’s Progress this was Moll Hackabout’s ladylike politeness in serving tea after stealing a watch from her customer, or the silk gown she wears in Bridewell while beating hemp.

In the first half of the century the major artists were in one degree or another satirists, or at least they began as practitioners of satire. For them it was satire that replaced epic with mock-epic, or history painting with mock-history. Civic humanism was long dead, and politeness and refinement were either masks or illusions. These were simply not the significant terms for artists primarily concerned with ideas of justice and mercy, character and conduct, moral right and wrong.

There were plenty of treatises that spoke of politeness, from the grossest hack writing up to the high level of Addison and Steele in the Spectator. (Solkin’s citations from Fielding are from a Champion essay he did not write.) While the Spectator’s advocacy of politeness – and discouragement of satire – no doubt had an effect and was probably reflected in architecture and the decorative arts, some artists also took from it the attacks on opera and heroic impersonations, the possibilities of passion unleashed by the sublime, the viability of ballads like ‘Chevy Chase’ and other transgressions of ‘fancy’.

Only Samuel Richardson really strove for refinement, which, as the result proved, was writing against his grain. Refinement was of course a strong, though highly ironised, element in Sterne’s novels. Even Reynolds was quite capable of the ‘impoliteness’, the Hogarthian ‘transgression’, of a bawdy Link Boy or a Nelly Obrien which parodies a Raphael Madonna and Child. Solkin’s account of the ‘ethical transvaluation of history-painting’, in which ‘the most public form of art became an instrument for the cultivation of those refined and sympathetic virtues which Hume and other mid-century Whiggish [sic] philosophers identified as the crowning glory of a prosperous commercial state’, finally applies best to the intentions of Hayman and High-more, Steele and Cibber, and some of the poetry of Thomson, Young, Akenside and the Wartons.