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HISTORY PAINTING REDISTANCED: FROM BENJAMIN WEST TO DAVID WILKIE*

  • MARK SALBER PHILLIPS (a1)
Abstract

This essay extends my previous investigations of distance to a genre of art that took distance (or elevation) as its essential signature. In a landmark article Edgar Wind argued that Benjamin West created a “revolution in history painting” by substituting distance in time for distance in space. I argue that a wider and more plastic understanding of distance can help to guide our studies of historical representation, visual as well as verbal. Temporal distance, I suggest, is mediated by at least four basic modes of distance, which I identify as formal, affective, ideological, and conceptual. Understood in these terms, a heuristic of distance and redistancing provides grounds for analyzing the various schools and genres that make up the field of historical representation—neoclassical and nineteenth- century history painting among them.

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1 Aglionby William, Choice Observatins Upon the Art of Painting (London, 1719) (variant title: Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues), unpaginated.

2 It is important to stress that I take “distance” to be a relational term that refers to the full spectrum of positions, near as well as far. For this reason, I use “distancing” or “distanciation” to mean putting something at a distance. See Phillips, On Historical Distance (New Haven, 2013), 67.

3 For reasons of space I have chosen to focus on West and Wilkie and more generally on the secular and nationalist dimension of history painting. In a wider survey one would want not only to give some account of Haydon, but also to examine the rather different histories of Turner, Danby, and Martin.

4 I have discussed this theme at length in Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing, 1740–1820 (Princeton, 2000); as well as in On Historical Distance, chaps. 3–4.

5 For some striking variants on this idea see Fuseli Henry, The Life and Writings, 3 vols. (London, 1831) 2: 156–79passim; and Hoare Prince, “Examination of the Various Offices of Painting,” in Hoare, ed., The Artist, 2 vols. (London, 1809–10), 2: 6–26, 255–73. On the latter, see my discussion in On Historical Distance, 161–4.

6 Reynolds Joshua, Discourses on Art, ed. Wark R. (New Haven, 1997), 59.

7 Ibid., 60.

8 Ibid., 171.

9 Galt John, The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West Subsequent to His Arrival in This Country (London, 1820; first published 1816), 47–8. For Galt's relation to West see Prown Jules David, Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture (New Haven, 2001), 274 n. 4; and Rather Susan, “Benjamin West, John Galt, and the Biography of 1816,” Art Bulletin, 86 (June 2004), 342–5.

10 Wind Edgar, “The Revolution of History Painting,” in Anderson J., ed., Hume and the Heroic Portrait (Oxford, 1968; first published in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1938), 88. For the continued currency of Wind's proposal see Bindman David, “Americans in London: Contemporary History Painting Revisited,” in Payne Christiana and Vaughn William, eds., English Accents: Intersections in British Art (Aldershot, 2004), 928.

11 For a fuller discussion see my Society and Sentiment, as well as On Historical Distance.

12 Barry James, The Death of General Wolfe, 1776, New Brunswick Museum, Canada.

13 Reynolds, Discourses, 57

14 West Benjamin, Discourse Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy . . . to which is Prefixed the Speech of the President to the Royal Academicians, on the 24th of March, 1792. (London, 1793), iv.

15 For Wilkie, I am especially indebted to two fine studies: Tromans Nicolas, David Wilkie: The People's Painter (Edinburgh, 2007); and Errington Lindsay, Tribute to Wilkie (Edinburgh, 1985).

16 See Wilkie's letter to Sir George Beaumont, 9 Oct. 1806: Cunningham Allan, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 3 vols. (London, 1843) 1: 125–6.

17 The newspaper has been identified as a radical Edinburgh publication. Contemporary commentary emphasized peasant presumptuousness as its target. For an earlier example, see Edward Penney's The Gossiping Blacksmith (1769, Tate). I am grateful to John Brewer for this reference.

18 Cunningham, Wilkie, 1: 112–13. In a longer discussion I would want to consider Wilkie's Alfred, which he explicitly calls a history. See his remark to Beaumont that “the principal object in an historical composition is to lead the mind back to the time in which the transaction happened,” coupled with the recognition that the mind is “always ready to associate elevated ideas with antiquity.” Cunningham, Wilkie, 1: 125–6.

19 I have chosen not to include the reminiscences of Benjamin Robert Haydon, another contemporary. Haydon's conflicted friendship with Wilkie and his deep self-regard require another kind of discussion.

20 For Burnet's relation to Reynolds's thought see his The Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Illustrated by Explanatory Notes (London, n.d.).

21 Burnet John, Practical Essays (London, 1848), 11. Burnet continues, “and had they been painted of a large size, decorating the halls or palaces throughout the kingdom, as in Rome, or Venice, or Florence, they would ere now have been engendering in the minds of the people the most beneficial results.” Instead they are only known from engravings, which have saved them from being entirely lost.

22 Ibid., 34.

23 Ibid., 37

24 Ibid., 41

25 Ibid., 41.

26 Ibid., 44, quoting from Cunningham, Wilkie, vol. 3.

27 There are other works of course from both periods that might be included. Amongst the earlier works, there are a number that seem more conventionally historical, including the Alfred and the Neat Herd's Cottage and the Philip Sydney; among the later ones, The Peep O’ Day Boy's Cabin (1836), Napoleon with Pope Pius VII (1836).

28 Nor were the selections always alike.

29 Cunningham, Wilkie, 3: 479.

30 Ibid., 3: 501.

31 Ibid., 3: 506. A further complexity lies in the distinction between painting passions and manners. “When he had to record manners rather than sentiment, Wilkie made faces equally expressive, but of a lower meaning, serve his purpose.” His paintings depicting the latter concerned “honest homespun peasants” and their affect was domestic and humorous. Ibid., 3: 502.

32 Ibid., 3: 502.

33 Ibid., 3: 502.

34 Tom Taylor later composed a similar account of Haydon. On the sentimental element in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century biography see Phillips, Society and Sentiment, 131–46.

35 Cunningham, Wilkie, 2: 6.

36 Ibid., 2: 29. Emphasis added. The term “national” is frequently applied to Wilkie's works. It is a usage that—like the emphasis on customs and manners—speaks to a wider sense of what constitutes a nation's history.

37 Ibid., 2: 13.

38 Ibid., 2: 51.

39 Ibid., 2: 51.

40 Ibid., 2: 66, 68, 68–71,72 successively.

41 Phillips, On Historical Distance, chaps. 1 and 2.

42 See my Society and Sentiment.

* My work on this essay was supported by a Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) in Washington, DC, as well as a Research Achievement Award from the Dean of Arts at Carleton University, Ottawa. I am grateful for the warm welcome of Nicholas Savage and Mark Pomeroy at the Royal Academy in London, and to Noelle Gallagher, Robert Goheen, Mitchell Frank, April London, and Jenna Stidwill for their help and criticism. I have examined the idea of distance in a variety of periods and genres in my recent monograph, On Historical Distance (New Haven, 2013).

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
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