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THE PAINTER OF CHARACTER.
SIR DAVID WILKIE.
The characteristic is an essential principle of art, and one that is never attained without original ability, and then rarely managed with tact. It possesses singular attraction, in modern times, from the uniformity of manners, induced by high civilization. The peculiar zest with which an epicure enjoys game, and a naturalist or poet explores a primeval and uninvaded scene, is experienced, in a degree, by every vigorous and healthful mind, in finding the characteristic effectively depicted in literature and art, or individualized in society. The interest awakened by the advent of a “lion” in the circles of Edinburgh, London, or Paris ; the pleasure with which we encounter, in travel, a sequestered village, where the language, costume, or habits of the people, have retained their individuality; and the earnest praise we lavish upon the author who succeeds in creating a fresh, consistent, and memorable character, are familiar evidences of the natural love of what is characteristic as an element of universal taste. Yet this obvious truth has been comparatively seldom acknowledged, and rarely acted upon. Conformity to a classical type, the dominion of a prescriptive standard of taste, and the tyranny of fashion, have combined to elevate imitation above originality; and genius of a high and energetic kind has alone proved adequate to obtain recognition for the latter.
Shakspeare gave it sanction and nurture in England, and to him we ascribe, in no small measure, the bold individuality of
achievement and taste, so remarkable in the history of art and letters in Great Britain. It is this which accounts for the otherwise anomalous taste that unites such opposite extremes of appreciation as Walpole and Gray with Burns, Crabbe, and Dickens, in literature; and in art, Turner, West, and Lawrence, with Moreland, Hogarth, and Wilkie. There exists, indeed, an interminable dispute between the votaries of the classic and the characteristic. Only by slow degrees and most unwillingly do the votaries of the former yield their ground. Accustomed to look at nature through the lens of antiquity, they dislike to admit that she can be directly viewed, - that her features may be seized and embodied, and her spirit infused, without the intervention of that style which the miracles of ancient art have consecrated. But when an original artist perfects himself in the details of this culture, as a means of expression, and then uses it to illustrate nature and manners as they actually exist, these devotees of antiquity are somewhat bewildered. In such a case the charge of ignorance or vulgarity is inadmissible. The execution proves high knowledge and acquaintance with standard models; but the familiarity of the subjects chosen, and the fact that, instead of beauty according to the abstract classical idea, nature in her characteristic significance is the essence of the work, disturbs the artistic creed of these ultra conservatives. The delight which all classes take in the sight of these adventurous efforts, the instant and genuine sympathy they awaken, and the extraordinary power they unquestionably display, “puzzle the will ” of the elegant representatives of classicism; and they can only reïterate the arguments adduced in the old controversy in regard to the Shakspearian and Racine drama; or have the magnanimity to acknowledge that the sphere of art is infinitely more extensive and versatile than they had imagined, and cannot be limited by any theory which a single touch of genius may forever annihilate.
The career of Wilkie affords, perhaps, the most striking and certainly the most interesting illustration of these views. He began to be an artist from instinct, and seldom has the tendency been less modified by adventitious influences. Excepting a print of a Highland chief sent to his father's manse, the exercise of the artistic faculty was not even suggested to him by any visible example of its results; yet, on the floors and walls of his boyhood's frugal home, on the smooth stones of the field, on the sand of the brook-side, and on his slate at school, he continually sketched human faces, animals, and every picturesque object that caught his eye; no sooner was the visitor's back turned, than something, so near a likeness that it was immediately recognized, appeared in chalk or charcoal ; groups of schoolboys surrounded his desk for "counterfeit presentments;” he preferred to cover the margin of the page with designs, to committing its text to memory; and to stand, with his hands in his pockets, and mark the pictures his comrades unconsciously made at their sports, to engaging in them himself; and it was his boast that he could draw before he knew how to read, and paint before he could spell.
That love of the characteristic was his chief inspiration, while thus spontaneously exercising the language of art, is evident from the subjects he chose and the kind of observation in which he delighted. His improvised drawings usually aimed at a great significance or whimsicality; mere imitation of uninteresting objects he abjured. On his way to school he loitered to sketch a gypsy wife or a maimed soldier, a limping sailor or a mendicant fiddler, and to observe groups of ploughmen; while it is remembered of him that his attention was often absorbed in watching a sunbeam on the wall, and the chiaro 'scuro effect of a smithy at night. He courted the society of good story-tellers, and displayed, under a demure exterior, the keenest relish of drollery and mischief. Like the Duke of Argyle, his heart "warmed to the tartan,” though for its picturesque rather than its patriotic associations ; and the two memorable experiences of his boyhood were the sight of the sea and a review of cavalry. Nerved by habits of simplicity, and practised in the observation of nature; sagacious, honest, candid, and poor, but wholly inexperienced in the technicalities and refinements of art — with this native sense of the characteristic, and a decided genius for embodying it, he left the manse of Cults, at the age of fourteen, to study art in Edinburgh.
Habits of incessant application, and a resolution to procecd intelligently, and never, by obscure steps, according to his fellowpupils, distinguished him at the Trustees' Academy. He would
the foot or hand of an ancient statue without first knowing its law of expression, and accounting scientifically for the position of each muscle; he was thorough and constant, and therefore made visible progress in facility and correctness of drawing. He took a prize in a few months, and the intervals of his practice were given to his favorite sphere of observation; ever in pursuit of character, he frequented trysts, fairs, and marketplaces. David Allan, a kind of Scotch Teniers, was the only precursor of Wilkie that seems to have proved suggestive; they had a natural vein in common, though essentially different; and this appears to have been the exclusive source of his early education in art.
An imperturbable good-nature and love of quiet fun endeared Wilkie to his comrades; but his form grew thin and his cheek pale, from the life of assiduous routine that filled the cycle of his youth. Anxious not to invade, more than necessity compelled, the narrow resources of his family, he earnestly sought that command of art that would enable him to render it lucrative; and, on his return home, he began at once to seek, and permanently represent, the characteristic phases of life and manners in his native district, where, in boyhood, he had grown familiar with them, and whither he had returned with power to do justice to his conceptions.
The history of his first attempt, in the peculiar sphere for which nature so obviously adapted him, is one of those pleasing and impressive episodes in the uneventful career of genius, which confirm our faith in its natural resources and inevitable destiny. With an old chest of drawers for an easel, and a herdboy for a layfigure, he began to put upon canvas a village fair. The scene of the picture was the adjacent hamlet of Pitteslie, the site of which, and its local features, he first carefully sketched. His groups and figures were gleaned on a market-day, and consisted of old women and bonnie lassies, venders of poultry, shoes, eggs, and candy, a travelling auctioneer, a ballad-singer, a gayly-decked recruiting sergeant; and the grave forms of ministers and elders whose portraits he transferred to a blank leaf of his Bible from the unconscious congregation at the kirk. Thus directly from life and nature every trait of the picture was derived. Its variety of
character and dramatic style charmed the uninitiated, and the impressive originality of its conception won the favor of tasteful and unprejudiced observers. The number of the latter, however, was too limited at home for him to expect there the encouragement he needed; and while he made studies in the vicinity which proved of great future use, and sketched outlines of village and rustic life which became the means of many subsequent triumphs, his chief resource in Scotland was portrait-painting.
With the gains of several months' labor in this field, and means cheerfully advanced by his father and neighbors to the best of their slender ability, he went to London, like many an adventurous genius, with a gift of nature to develop, upon the recognition of which his prosperity wholly depended. We may imagine the feelings of the sagacious but demure young Scot, as he exchanged the familiar landscape of moor and mountain for the English coast, the ship-covered Thames, and the smoky canopy of London. Undaunted by the multitudinous life around him, with a modest but determined soul, he isolated himself, and patiently toiled. For nine long months he lived in humble lodgings, dined for thirteen pence a day, drew from his own limbs as models, and blacked his own shoes for economy. Illness as well as poverty beset him ; but his studies at the academy, his observations in the streets, and his labors at the easel, were unremitted. He placed his pictures in a shop-window, and groups would cluster round and enjoy them; they found ready purchasers at six guineas each, but distrust of their own taste prevented many from acknowledging the merit they could not but feel; and Wilkie corresponded with his father on the subject of returning to the manse and renouncing his dream of metropolitan success.
True to his domestic attachments, he sought with his first earnings to procure a piano-forte for his sister ; and at the shop of a distinguished manufacturer he excited curiosity, which led to an examination of his portfolio, and, at length, to the exhibition of Pitteslie Fair to the Countess of Mansfield, a patroness of the instrument-maker. Lord Mansfield ordered a picture of Wilkie, selecting his sketch of “The Village Politician" as the subject. The first idea of this work seems to have arisen from a popular ballad, but the excitement of the French Revolution, as it