The first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, delivered fifteen Discourses over a period of 18 years to the Academy’s student body and faculty members. Orated in 1769 at the opening of the Royal Academy, the first Discourse introduces progressive advice on the subject of Art. The totality of Reynolds Discourses encapsulate the comprehension of an adept in his field. Rich with useful insights and poignant analogies, it is clear that he possessed an intellect of the first order with which he described the practical mechanics of painting. Upon analysis the lectures have great relevance for today’s artists and to that end a careful synopsis of all discourse will clarify and elucidate its key points.
The first Discourse is structured around the theme of diligence. Reynolds opens with words of praise to the reigning monarch and illustrates the need of the British Empire to have, “an ornament suitable to its greatness”, that is to say, an Academy of Art. With the customary platitudes fulfilled, Reynolds moves on to define his notion of the Academies purpose, namely to, “furnish able men to direct the student”, and to be, “a repository for the great examples of the Art.” These statements exemplify Reynolds conception of the primary function of the Academy, its means and its ends. Lamenting the loss to Britain of potential artists of noteworthy talent, Reynolds reasons that it was due, in part, to the lack of an Academy and the works of Art which such an Academy would be the repository for. He elaborates with a beautiful soliloquise placing the emphasis for artistic instruction primarily on the tangible examples of great Art in preference to tutorial direction. Reynolds adds;
“How many men of great natural abilities have been lost to this nation for want of these advantages! They never had an opportunity of seeing those masterly efforts of genius, which at once kindle the whole soul. Raffaelle, it is true had not the advantage of studying in an Academy; but all Rome and the works of Michael Angelo in particular were to him an Academy. On the sight of the Capella Sistina, he immediately from a dry, Gothic, and even insipid manner,..assumed that grand style of painting, which improves partial representation by general and invariable ideas of nature.”
Sir Joshua resolves his position explaining that an Academy should not thrust a foreign attitude upon the student, because such a forceful attempt will have the opposite effect, namely in deterring the student from adopting a view that they are not ready to accept. On the contrary, in Reynolds view, an Academy should be an environment within which a student can adopt the particular views and practices that are amenable to his or her own particular outlook and aptitude. Speaking on the subject he remarks;
“Every seminary of learning may be said to be surrounded with an atmosphere of floating knowledge where every mind may imbibe somewhat congenial to its own original conceptions. Knowledge, thus obtained, has always something more popular and useful than that which is forced upon the mind by a private precepts.”
With this said Sir Joshua delivers a cautionary aside. Observing the fact that Continental Academies had by his time collapsed, Reynolds outlines the London Academies distinguishing quality and its saving grace adding;
“As these Institutions have so often failed in other nations; and it is natural to think with regret, how much might have been done, I must take leave to offer a few hints, by which those errors may be rectified… The Professors and Visitors may reject or adopt as they shall think proper” (namely) “It will not be as it has been in other schools where he that traveled fastest only wandered farthest from the right way.”
What exactly was Reynolds idea of the right way? This he defined as an adherence to the “Rules of Art as established by the practice of the Old Masters.” On this basis he entreats the students of the Royal Academy to regard the works of the Old Masters to be the very acme of Art instruction, advising that they should use; “those models as perfect and infallible guides; as subjects for their imitation.” Continuing the subject of “the right way”, Sir Joshua had some very strong things to say in defense of the Rules of Art, in effect consigning those unversed in the procedure of The Rules, to the wastes of mediocrity. In this capacity Reynolds was a zealous advocate of the need for careful and disciplined practice along lines parallel to those of the Old Masters. Sir Joshua regarded this as the touchstone of Art instruction, adding;
“Every opportunity… should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion, that Rules are the fetters of genius; they are fetters only to men of no genius; as armour which upon the strong is an ornament and a defense, upon the weak… becomes a load, and cripples the body which it was made to protect.”
When fully acquired Reynolds adds that such, “Rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building.” This analogy implies that before a student can advance towards a level concordant with that of the Old Masters they must first acquire a thorough understanding of the “Rules of Art”. The remainder of Reynolds first discourse centers on his warning which cited that, it was due to wandering from the, “right way,” by failing to properly observe the “Rules of Art”, that resulted in the collapse of academies in other nations. In this vein Sir Joshua advises the Academies teaching faculty to remain vigilant against its young students tendency to seek a short cut to excellence. The expedient to which he refers to is that of bypassing hard and careful craftsmanship due to the deterrent of the great effort involved in its regular maintenance and pursuit. Reynolds explains further that the student is;
“Terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires… to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those, which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed… there is no easy method of becoming a good painter.”
Reynolds defines the students short cut as the desire to acquire; “a lively handling of the chalk or pencil” which “they will find no great labour in attaining” and “after much time spent in these frivolous pursuits, the difficulty will be to retreat; but it will be then too late and there is scarce an instance of return to scrupulous labour after the mind has been debauched and deceived by this fallacious mastery.” There is an obvious touch of irony in Reynolds use of the word “mastery” in this context. As a fitting contrast to those students who would seek mastery through less assiduous means, Sir Joshua proceeds to delineate the difference between the short path and the intensive labour exerted by the Old Masters in the production of their Art.
“When we read the lives of the most eminent Painters, every page informs us, that no part of their time was spent in dissipation. When they conceived a subject, they first made a finished drawing of the whole; after that a more correct drawing of every separate part, – heads, hands, feet, and pieces of drapery; they then painted the picture, and after all retouched it from the life.”
Reynolds goes on to explain how the effect of all this labour underpins a result that simply appears to be effortless in the finished painting. This appearance of ease serves to conceal the great exertions applied by the Old Masters to the task of painting, and deceives the eye and the intellect of the student into believing that a quick path will obtain an equal result. This, Sir Joshua explained, is an erroneous conclusion, one which seduces the student into following a route that fails to reach is intended destination. Sir Joshua observes; “The pictures thus wrought with such pains now appear like the effects of enchantment,… as if some mighty genius had struck them off at a blow.” Recall that this current precaution links back to Reynolds desire to avoid the source of other Academies failure. Driving the point home still further Sir Joshua entreats his students to avoid what he considered to be the main defect of; “the methods of education pursued in all the Academies.” Reynolds proposes that a student should first learn to draw exactly what he perceives, because otherwise he will risk repeating the errors of students in the failed academies. Such students, Reynolds claims, added extraneous artifacts to the subjects at hand, artifacts which being supplied by imagination served to distort the true structure of the visual form. Putting his case with eloquence, Reynolds states;
“The error is that the students never draw exactly from the living models they have before them. They change the form according to their vague and uncertain ideas of beauty, and make a drawing rather of what they think the figure ought to be, than of what it appears… grace and beauty… was not acquired by the ancients, but by an attentive and well compared study of the human form.”
Sir Joshua advances the pre-eminence of drawing, with an eye for precision, by giving as an example a particular drawing made by Raphael, entitled, ‘The Dispute of the Sacrament’. In this drawing Reynolds points out that in rendering the form of a hat upon the heads of different figures, Raphael does not deviate from the path of correct draftsmanship; “even at a time when he was allowed to be at his highest pitch of excellence.” Elaborating on the theme of precision and faithful observation, Reynolds begins to conclude his seminal discourse to the Royal Academy. Beseeching its audience, in the most delicate and unassuming manner, to regard the importance of diligent application to the task of acquiring the skills of true and precise draftsmanship. This, as has been demonstrated, was Reynolds conception of the basis of successful painting, one which he formulated into a “Rule of Art”, which he envisioned to be the principle that would save the Royal Academy from deterioration. Reynolds explains that;
“This scrupulous exactness is so contrary to the practice of the Academies, that it is not without great deference, that I beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the Visitors; and submit to them, whether the neglect of this method is one of the reasons why students so often disappoint expectation and being more than boys at sixteen become less than men at thirty”
As a final testament to the great and obvious concern expressed by Reynolds for the welfare of his students and Art in general, Sir Joshua finishes his first Discourse by expressing a moving personal sentiment. This being Reynolds final recorded word in a lecture on the subject of Art for almost a year, Sir Joshua considers the future course of the Academy, envisioning its potential to aid the development of civilization toward a new Renaissance, he states;
“Permit me to indulge my wishes and to express my hope that this institution may vie in Arts with that of Leo the Tenth; and that the dignity of the dying Art… may be revived.”
With these poignant words, Reynolds concludes his first Discourse to the Students of the Royal Academy.