Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sir Joshua Reynolds Seventh Discourse

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait . 1780

Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the founders and the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, gave a series of lectures to his student body in the mid-1700s. While some very thought-provoking things were said to these young men, the English from that era was difficult at times to understand.

So I began to paraphrase his Discourse VII for the Modern Man in modern American English. Even though I read much further than this - and his points were very interesting - the slog to make a good paraphrase was so hard that this was all the further I got:

Developing Good Taste
"Gentlemen, it has been my aim - ever since I began this series of lectures - to persuade you that success in your art depends not just on developing your technical skills, but even more so on developing your minds. When you are not painting, spend your leisure time

  • Reading fine literature - especially poetry
  • Studying human nature
  • Speaking with and listening to educated, thinking individuals
  • Thinking on how to apply what you learn to your life and art
Why should you do this? It is to develop Good Taste - taste which will carry over into your work and raise it to the highest standards.

However - sad to say - there are those who assert that the effort to acquire good taste is a hopeless pursuit. Instead, they feel artists ought to "court the muse in shady bowers," "await the call and inspiration of genius, find out where he inhabits, and where he is to be invoked with the greatest success," and "attend to times and seasons when the imagination shoots with greatest vigour, whether at the summer solstice or the equinox." [Take note, since the summer solstice is upon us!]

Absolutes in Art
These same folks are sure that striving to create art according to artistic rules and principles cramp the freedom and liberty of the imagination. They suppose that some just happen to be born with genius, and just happen to know the right things to do without direction from artistic principles, thought processes or hard work.

But I would assert that there is indeed absolute truth in art. Absolute or real truth is objective. It acts as a plumbline. These are things that can most certainly be ascertained. For example, you can tell if

  • a picture is like or unlike the subject matter
  • its coloring is true or not to the subject
  • the drawing and composition are good or not
  • the values and edges in a piece are correct or not

At this point in Reynold's discourse, I was surprised. Apparently there were battles between different views of art long before Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon! If indeed Modern Art means "The point at which artists (1) felt free to trust their inner visions, (2) express those visions in their work, (3) use Real Life (social issues and images from modern life) as a source of subject matter and (4) experiment and innovate as often as possible," then what I had read from the mid-1700s was an objection to that very thing.

This battle continues. I myself have been astonished these past few years at several unexpected, emotional responses to my study of art warning me against becoming enslaved to principles while at the same time, praising the creative individual who follows their inner voice. Regardless, this is my preferred path. I also believe in creativity...but want to see it subjected to Good Taste and tried and true artistic principles.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Linda! This has brought me such hope and encouragement...for my time away from the hands-on-creation of art i far too much, right now, but knowing this, that I can still be 'working on my art' when I am away from it, is a great comfort indeed, and it validates whatI have been discovering on my own. Thank you! : )

  2. Hi Linda,

    Actually, I think both can be achieved at the same time, listening to the 'inner voice' while adhering to traditional principles in realist art. Those who think that deconstructing art to the point of throwing out hundreds of years of discovered principles are only doing a disservice to themselves, in my opinion.

    How can you throw out principles if you have not studied them or truly understood them in the first place? I firmly believe that through studies of nature and how to depict it in painting, drawing, sculpting, that we learn a visual language, which then informs our choices. Only when we learn this visual language can we depart in a meaningful and precise way to give voice to our inner selves. Very often the same is true with writing, dance, film, poetry, and many of the arts.

  3. Emma, I think that your opportunities to study with your current teachers are wonderful for building a sturdy foundation for your art. Their instruction will enable you to send your roots deep so that you'll be able to achieve much more than would have been possible otherwise.

  4. Julia, I agree that an artist ought to strive for both. It is consciously striving for good drawing, relationships amongst edges, colors, and values, technical competency in painting and so on; and it is both attempting to create the meaning of the piece from the start, and keeping one's eyes open to perceive further meaning as the painting progresses.