Wilson Online Reference
Hazlitt 1843-44
William Hazlitt
Criticisms on Art
John Templeman, 248 Regent Street
London, UK
Date of Publication
Vol. 1 - 1843; vol. 2 - 1844
Primary published
Source Institution
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
Document Inventory/Accession No
43.1657 (ser.1); 43.1658 (ser. 2)
More Information
William Hazlitt (1778-1830), essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator and philosopher was also the finest English art critic of his age. Many of his writings on art were published in these two volumes, edited by his son. Vol. 1, dedicated to the Marquis of Lansdowne, comprises 335 + lxxxiv pp. It contains a series of critical essays on the picture galleries of England and on more general subjects such as the Elgin Marbles. There are eleven appendices, containing catalogues of major public and private collections, such as the National Gallery and Longford Castle. Two works by Wilson are mentioned: P44A View of Tivoli: The Cascatelle and the Villa of Maecenas (p. 36) and (very probably) P35 River and Farmhouse - I (p. 112). He is also discussed at length in the essay On the Fine Arts on pp. 184-92 and (faintly) praised on p. 225. Wilson is recorded in the appended catalogues of the National Gallery, p. iii, no. 108: Maecenas' Villa at Tivoli [P71] & p. iii, no. 110: Landscape and Niobe [P90B]; Dulwich Picture Gallery, p. ix, no. 215: Maecenas' Villa, near Tivoli [P44A]; Grosvenor House, p. xl, no. 12: View on the Dee, near Eaton Hall [P86]; Wilton House, p. xlvi, no. 100: A Landscape [unidentified]; and Stourhead, p. li, no. 119: The Lake of Nemi, with the Story of Diana and her Nymphs [P127A] & p. li, no. 131: A Landscape [P35]. Vol. 2, dedicated to the Duke of Sutherland, comprises 384 + lxix pp. It contains twelve essays on both general and specific subjects, e.g. 'On Originality' and 'On Mr West's Picture of Death on the Pale Horse' respectively. There are ten appendices comprising catalogues of major public and private collections such as the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge and that belonging to Samuel Rogers. Wilson is mentioned passingly on p. 113, in comparison with Turner and Claude; and in the catalogues of Stafford House p. xiii, no. 177: Landscape; Lansdowne House and Bowood, p. xxiv, no. 158: Landscape; The Bridgewater Gallery, p. xlv, no. 289: Landscape; with the Story of Niobe [Repetition of the picture in the National Gallery.] [P90A] & no. 290: Landscape, with Figures seated [P146]; and the collection of Samuel Rogers, p. lxvii, no. 62: Landscape - a Tower on the near right [P177C].
Full Text
Vol. 1: On P44A View of Tivoli: The Cascatelle and the Villa of Maecenas: 'No. 215, is The Casatella [sic] and Villa of Maecenas, near Tivoli, by Wilson, with his own portrait in the foreground. It is an imperfect sketch; but there is a curious anecdote relating to it, that he was so delighted with the waterfall itself that he cried out, while painting it: "Well done, water, by G-d!"' (The Dulwich Gallery, p. 36). On P35 (very probably) River and Farmhouse - I : 'We should also mention [...] a very pleasing little landscape by Wilson.' (Pictures at Stourhead, p. 112) On the Fine Arts: [...] Wilson, whose landscapes may be divided into three classes, - his Italian landscapes, or imitations of the manner of Claude, - his copies of English scenery, - and his historical compositions. The first of these are, in my opinion, by much the best; and I appeal in support of this opinion, to the Apollo and the Seasons [P164 & versions], and to the Phaeton [P119 & versions]. The figures are of course out of the question (these being as uncouth and slovenly as Claude's are insipid and finical); but the landscape in both pictures is delightful. In looking at them we breathe the air which the scene inspires, and feel the genius of the place present to us. In the first, there is the cool freshness of a misty spring morning; the sky, the water, the dim horizon, all convey the same feeling. The fine gray tone and varying outlines of the hills; the graceful form of the retiring lake, broken still more by the hazy shadows of the objects that repose on its bosom; the light trees that expand their branches in the air, and the dark stone figure and mouldering temple, that contrast strongly with the broad clear light of the rising day, - give a charm, a truth, a force, and harmony to this composition, which produce the greater pleasure the longer it is dwelt on. The distribution of light and shade resembles the effect of light on a globe. The Phaeton has the dazzling fervid appearance of an autumnal evening; the golden radiance streams in solid masses from behind the flickering clouds; every object is baked in the sun; the brown foreground, the thick foliage of the trees, the streams, shrunk and stealing along behind the dark, high banks, combine to produce that richness and characteristic unity of effect which is to be found only in nature, or in art derived from the study and imitation of nature. the glowing splendour of this landscape reminds us of the saying of Wilson, that in painting such subjects he endeavoured to give the effect of insects dancing in the evening sun. His eye seemed formed to drink in the light. These two pictures, as they have the greatest general effect, are more carefully finished in the particular details than the other pictures in the collection. This circumstance may be worth the attention of those who are apt to think that strength and slovenliness are the same thing. Cicero at his Villa is a clear and beautiful representation of nature. The sky is admirable for its pure azure tone. Among the less finished productions of Wilson's pencil, which display his great knowledge of perspective, is A Landscape with Figures Bathing, in which the figures are wonderfully detached from the sea beyond; and A View in Italy, with a lake and a little boat, which appear at an immeasurable distance below; the boat diminished to "A buoy almost too small for sight." A View of Ancona, Adrian's Villa at Rome, a small blue greenish landscape; The Lake of Neuni [sic], a small richly coloured landscape of the banks of a river; and a landscape containing some light and elegant groups of trees, are masterly and interesting sketches. A View on the Tiber, near Rome; a dark landscape which lies finely open to the sky; and A View of Rome are successful imitations of N. Poussin. A View of Sion House, which is hung almost out of sight, is remarkable for the clearness of the perspective, particularly in the distant windings of the River Thames, and still more so for the parched and droughty appearance of the whole scene. The air is adust [sic] the grass burned up and withered; and it seems as if some figures, reposing on the level, smooth-shaven lawn, on the river's side, would be annoyed by the parching heat of the ground. We consider this landscape, which is an old favourite, as one of the most striking proofs of Wilson's genius, as it conveys not only the image, but the feeling, of nature, and excites a new interest unborrowed from the eye, like the fine glow of a summer's day. There is a sketch of the same subject, called A View on the Thames. A View near Llangollen, North Wales [P166]; Oakhamptom Castle, Devonshire [P173]; and The Bridge at Llangollen [P65] are the principal of Wilson's English landscapes. In general this artist's views of home scenery want almost everything that ought to recommend them. The subjects he has chosen are not well fitted for the landscape painter, and there is nothing in the execution to redeem them. Ill-shaped mountains, or great heaps of earth, - trees that grow against them without character or elegance, - motionless waterfalls, - a want of relief, of transparency and distance, without the imposing grandeur of real magnitude (which it is scarcely within the province of art to give), - are the chief features and defects of this class of his pictures. The same general objections apply to Solitude [P114 & versions] and to one of two other pictures near it, which are masses of common-place confusion. In more confined scenes the effect must depend almost entirely in the differences in the execution and the details; for the difference of colour alone is not sufficient to give relief to objects placed at a small distance from the eye. But in Wilson there are commonly no details, - all is loose and general; and this very circumstance, which might assist him in giving the mighty contrasts of light and shade, deprived his pencil of all force and precision within a limited space. In general, air is necessary to the landscape painter; and, for this reason the lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland afford few subjects for landscape painting. However stupendous the scenery of that part of the country is, and however powerful and lasting the impression which it must always make on the imagination, yet the effect is not produced merely through the medium of the eye, but arises chiefly from collateral and associated feelings.There is the knowledge of the physical magnitude of the objects in the midst of which we are placed, - the slow improgressive motion which we make in traversing them; - there is the abrupt precipice, the torrent's roar, the boundless expanse of the prospect from the highest mountains, - the difficulty of their ascent, their loneliness and silence; in short, there is a constant sense and superstitious awe of the collective power of matter, on which, from the beginning of time, the hand of man has made no impression, and which, by the lofty reflections they excite in us, give a sort of intellectual sublimity, even to our sense of physical weakness. But there is little in all these circumstances that can be translated into the picturesque, which makes its appeal immediately to the eye. In a picture, a mountain shrinks to a mole-hill, and the lake that expands its broad bosom to the sky seems hardly big enough to launch a fleet of cockle-shells. Wilson's historical landscapes, the two Niobes, Celadon and Amelia, Meleager and Atalanta, do not, in our opinion, deserve the name; that is, they do not excite feelings corresponding with the scene and story represented. They neither display true taste nor fine imagination, but are affected and violent exaggerations of clumsy common nature. They are made up mechanically of the same stock of materials, an overhanging rock, bare shattered trees, black rolling clouds, and forked lightning. The scene of Celadon & Amelia, though it may be proper for a thunder-storm, is not a place for lovers to walk in. The Meleager & Atalanta is remarkable for nothing but a castle at a distance, very much "resembling a goose-pie". The figures in the most celebrated of these are not, like the children of Niobe, punished by the gods, but like a group of rustics crouching from a hail storm. I agree with Sir Joshua Reynolds, that Wilson's mind was not, like N. Poussin's, sufficiently imbued with the knowledge of antiquity to transport the imagination three thousand years back, to give natural objects a sympathy with preternatural events, and to inform rocks, trees, and mountains, with the presence of a God, but nevertheless, his landscapes will ever afford a high treat to the lover of the art. In all that relates to the gradation of tint, to the graceful conduct and proportions of light and shade, and to the fine, deep, and harmonious tones of nature, they are models for the student. In his Italian landscapes his eye seems almost to have drunk in the light. To sum up this general character, I may observe that, besides his excellence in aërial perspective, Wilson had great truth, harmony, and depth of local colouring. He had a fine feeling of the proportions and conduct of light and shade, and also an eye for graceful form, as far as regards the bold and varying outlines of indefinite objects, as may be seen in his foregrounds, hills, &c.; where the mind is left to muse according to an abstract principle, as it is filled or affected agreeably by certain combinations, and is not tied down to an imitation of characteristic and articulate forms. In his figures, trees, cattle, and in every thing having a determinate and regular form, his pencil was not only deficient in accuracy of outline, but even in perspective and actual relief. His trees, in particular, seem pasted on the canvas, like botanical specimens. In fine, I cannot subscribe the opinion of those who assert that Wilson was superior to Claude as a man of genius; nor can I discern any other grounds for this opinion than what would lead to the general conclusion, that the more slovenly the work the finer the picture, and that that which is imperfect is superior to that which is perfect. It might be said, on the same principle, that the coarsest sign-painting is better than the reflection of a landscape in a mirror. The objection that is sometimes made to the mere imitation of nature cannot be made to the landscapes of Claude, for in them the graces themselves have, with their own hands, assisted in selecting and disposing every object. Is the truth inconsistent with the beauty of the imitation? Does the perpetual profusion of objects and scenery, all perfect in themselves, interfere with the simple grandeur and comprehensive magnificence of the whole? Does the precision with which a plant is marked in the foreground take away from the air-drawn distinctions of the blue glimmering horison [sic]? Is there any want of that endless airy space, where the eye wanders at liberty under the open sky, explores distant objects, and returns back as from a delightful journey? There is in fact no comparison between Claude and Wilson. Sir Joshua Reynolds used to say that there would be another Raphael before there would be another Claude. His landscapes have all that is excellent and refined in art and nature. Every thing is moulded into grace and harmony; and, at the touch of his pencil, shepherds with their flocks, temples, and groves, and winding glades and scattered hamlets, rise up in never-ending succession, under the azure sky and the resplendent sun, while "Universal Pan, Knit with the graces, and the hours, in dance, Leads on the eternal spring." Michael Angelo has left, in one of his sonnets, a fine apostrophe to the earliest poet of Italy: "Fain would I, to be what our Dante was, Forego the happiest fortunes of mankind." What landscape-painter does not feel this of Claude? I have heard an anecdote, connected with the reputation of Gainsborough's pictures, which rests on pretty good authority. Sir Joshua Reynolds, at one of the Academy dinners, speaking of Gainsborough, said to a friend, "He is undoubtedly the best English landscape-painter." "No", said Wilson, who overheard the conversation, "he is not the best landscape-painter, but he is the best portrait-painter in England." (pp. 184-192) What is become of the successors of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Vandyke! [...] What extraordinary advances have we made in our own country in consequence of the establishment of the Royal Academy? What greater names has the English school to boast than those of Hogarth, Reynolds, and Wilson, who created it? (p. 225)
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