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operated in rural districts upon the village gossips, over the alehouse Gazette, rendered it an epitome of the times; while in its details, as in the former instance, the painter followed nature with graphic authenticity.
An incidental discussion between several artists of distinction, which resulted in a visit to Wilkie's humble studio, contributed, at the same moment, to draw attention to his merits; and the exhibition of the "Village Politician" at the Royal Academy was an epoch in the history of English art. Although Lord Mansfield, in his pecuniary arrangement with Wilkie, did not emulate the liberality for which patrons of art are renowned in Great Britain, yet the artist's manly behavior on the occasion, and the fame of the picture, had the immediate effect of establishing him in public estimation. Thenceforth his reputation was fixed as an original painter; in him the characteristic found its legitimate exponent; and although Northcote sneered at his subjects as belonging to the “pauper school," and Haydon, in his admira
” tion of the grand style, disputed with him as to the claims of his sphere of art, he calmly pursued his course; and the Auroras and Calypsos of the exhibition were neglected, in their artificial beauty, while the iron-railing about Wilkie's homely but true and natural creations, was constantly surrounded by eager throngs of all classes, whose looks of wonder, mirth, or tenderness, bore witness to their genuine emotion.
The effect of Wilkie’s success upon the people of his native place formed a striking contrast to their original misgivings as to his career. The ominous shake of the head, with which the narrow but worthy presbyters had listened to what they deemed his profane intent, gave place to the reluctant confession that he was an ingenious lad; the old villagers, who had been most offended at finding their respectable faces transferred to the picture of a Fair without their knowledge and consent, now called at the manse, to thank the young artist for the enduring honor bestowed by his miraculous pencil ; the rustic satirist, who had declared of one of his early sketches that it was more like a flounder than a foot, was now voted a simpleton; and the old dame, whose prophecy of the boy David, that he would live to be knighted, had been ridiculed, now won quite a reputation for
second-sight, especially as the prediction was soon literally fulfilled.
Next to the patronage secured by his fame, its most valuable result was social advancement. He immediately gained the friendship and confidence, and, in many instances, the habitual society, of the leading men of rank, genius, and character, in the kingdom, and preserved the benefit first obtained through artistic genius, by his rich humor, unalloyed simplicity, and candid goodnature. Indeed, no better evidence of the solid nature of Wilkie's gifts and acquirements could be afforded, than that shown in the manner of receiving what has been justly called “this gust of fame.” His enthusiasm remained calm as before, his habits of application unchanged, his assiduity in the study and representation of the characteristic increased; he seemed only confirmed, by the public response to his aspirations, in their essential truth and efficacy; no symptom of elation appeared; and it soon became evident to all that Wilkie's modesty was equal to his originality.
It is impossible to follow his subsequent career without acknowledging the peculiar value of individual patronage to the cause of
We have seen that long and careful observation, repeated experiment, and patient study, are essential to the production of such works as those adapted to his genius. To toil thus upon a doubtful subject, to create instead of ministering to taste of this kind, or to sacrifice a sphere so original and attractive for portrait-painting, are equally undesirable alternatives ; it is needful that the artist should be cheered by a reliable destination for his work, that he should devote himself to it with confidence, and a spirit of freedom, hope, and self-possession, such as can never be realized when the disposition and recompense of this labor is wholly precarious.
Accordingly, we deem Wilkie's successive admirable efforts the legitimate fruits of tasteful individual encouragement; the commission of Lord Mansfield was immediately followed by one from Lord Mulgrave, and others from the Duke of Gloucester and Sir George Beaumont. The latter gentleman may be considered the ideal of an artist's friend. Thoroughly versed in the principles, history, and practice of art, and only excluded from a high share of its honors by a want of executive facility, he not only ordered a picture with a tasteful wisdom that enlisted every true artist's gratitude, but watched its progress with an appreciative enthusiasm that awakened the best sympathies of the painter; his tact and liberality were equal to his intelligence and taste. His letters to Wilkie are beautiful illustrations of character, as well as evidences of artistic knowledge and zeal. His home was the favorite resort of the fraternity, and his visits and letters cheered the labors and the lives of a class of men who need more and receive less recognition than any other.
Wilkie continued to illustrate the subjects that from the first arrested his mind; usually they were tinged with his own experience, and had a distinct national association ; and always the graces of execution were made to elucidate the characteristic in expression. “The Blind Fiddler," "The Letter of Introduction," " The Reading of the Will," " The Penny Wedding," “The Card Players,” “ The Newsmonger," “ The Unexpected Visitor," "The Cut Finger," "Guess my Name," "The Parish Beadle,” “Rent Day,” and “The Rabbit on the Wall," are pictures, the very names of which at once suggest the genius of Wilkie, the originality of his sphere, and the causes of his popularity. Except to professional readers, the description of a picture is usually tedious and vague; the general character of those of Wilkie may be inferred from their names; while the inimitable skill and effect of their execution have been made familiar by the excellent engravings of the originals so widely distributed on both sides of the ocean. Like the poems of Burns, they speak directly to the heart and fancy, to the sense of humor and humanity; and, humble as is their apparent aim, few works of art breathe so universal a language; for it is derived from and addressed to our common nature, with only such local and individual modification as give it significance and personality.
The “Reading of the Will" is said to have been suggested by Bannister, the comedian; it is one of the most characteristic not only of Wilkie's pictures, but of the school to which it belongs; it is a kind of sublimated Hogarth, a genuine scene in life's drama, expressive, true, and having that fine mixture of nature, irony of observation, and skill, which forms the excellence of
the domestic style of art. The business air of the attorney, the snuffling boy with his marbles, the pensive coquetry of the bouncing widow, the gallant devotion of the stalwart officer, and the flustering, indignant movement of the piqued dame, are eloquent exhibitions of character. For unity of design artists give the preference to the " Blind Fiddler ;” the old man's complacent look at the sight of the children's pleasure, the boy imitating the musician with a pair of bellows, the leaping of the infant, and the mother's sympathetic delight, form a family scene, under the influence of music, at once sweet, natural, and harmonious.
Probably no single work exhibited at the Royal Academy ever produced the immediate effect of "The Waterloo Gazette.” From the women leaning out of the windows to drink in the thrilling news, to the oyster suspended on the half-raised fork of the entranced listener, every figure and object indicates the effect of the tidings, and this so vividly as to absorb and infect spectators
of every class.
The English school of painting is admirably illustrative of English life and character. It is essentially domestic, and often So when professedly historical. Its landscapes, family groups, rural manners, or characteristic subjects, depicted with elegance, nicety, expression, and truth, one would instantly infer were destined to become familiar and endeared to vigilant eyes in the privacy of home. Grandeur of design, and exaltation of sentiment, -- the pictorial generalization of the old masters, intended to adorn cathedrals and princely walls,— would be singularly out of place in domestic retreats. A consciousness on the part of the artists that they thus minister to the individual and the family seems to chasten, refine, and genially inspire their labors. There is something almost personally attaching in some of these limners, as there is in the household writers of Britain ; and we feel towards Gainsborough, Leslie, and Wilkie, as we do towards Thomson, Goldsmith, and Sterne. Yet one can scarcely imagine a greater variety of style than the renowned painters of England include ; few contrasts in art being more absolute than those between Moreland and Turner, West and Leslie, or Reynolds and Lawrence.
In the works and artistic opinions of Wilkie there is more
intelligence than imagination ; good sense, clear reasoning, and thoughtfulness, form the basis of his genius; and these are the very qualities which distinguish the English from the Italians and Dutch, — the former having sense as the main element of their artistic activity, the second imagination, and the latter imitation. “ Art,” says Wilkie, “is only art when it adds mind to form." Elsewhere he speaks of Turner's “glamour of color," and observes : “ With a certain class of subjects it is necessary to put in much that is imaginary, or without authority, and to leave out much unadapted for painting.”
Few artists uniformly had a better reason for the faith that was in them than Wilkie; and his memory and observation were equally characterized by this intelligent spirit. Jerusalem recalled to liis mind the imagination of Poussin, and seemed built for all time; while he recognized in the works of Titian, Paul Veronese, and Piombo, the closest resemblance to the Syrian race, and ascribed it to the constant intercourse between Venice and the East. From his comprehensive style, he saw that Michael Angelo's prophets and sibyls resembled the Jews of the Holy City; while Raphael and Da Vinci recalled nature. He seems justly to have understood himself, and never painted well except when selfimpelled to a subject. He declined a commission to execute a picture of the death of Sydney, from a conviction of his inaptitude for the particular style required; and all Sir Walter's counsel to him, in behalf of certain picturesque and memorable localities in Scotland, was thrown away upon the artist, who, meanwhile, was busy in his own manner, collecting pictorial data, and providing what his friends called "relays of character," — working up his inimitable conceptions, and, at intervals, replenishing his purse by limning a portrait. In the latter department, his most elaborate works are the Queen and her Council, Wellington, O'Connell, and Scott's family at Abbotsford.
In one of his felicitous speeches, Wilkie remarked of his native country: “Bleak as are her mountains, and homely as are her people, they have yet in their habits and occupations a characteristic acuteness and feeling;" and these he seemed as much inspired to embody and preserve as Scott the historic associations or Burns the rustic sentiment of the land; and his eminent suc