The Growth of the Art World in Eighteenth Century England. 9May 8, 2018
The Public, Sentiment & History Painting in the 1760s & 1770s.
The artistic societies adopted the French practice of offering free exhibitions- with a catalogue available for 6d- but eventually they relinquished philanthropy altogether and imposed an exhibition charge of a shilling. In doing this they seemed to be saying that art was not a charity- like the Foundling project- and that they must encourage the kind of viewers who paid for their pleasures at Vauxhall with doing the same for exhibitions.1 At these displays, the public were given the opportunity to appraise art from the highest genre, history painting, with perhaps- in the case of artists like Benjamin West- a compound of stoicism and sentimentality, since his classical pictures like the Poussin-like Agrippina bearing the Ashes of Germanicus (1768) were associated with the moral conduct of ancient female heroines; West might have done this because he considered women part of his “target audience.”2 But West went much further with the strategy of infusing great history pictures with emotion as in his Death of General Wolfe in 1771 (above). What is considered to be the “revolution” in painting shows the young leader of the English forces, James Wolfe, dying in Canada amongst a group of spectators including the affective soldiers and civilians, and an unemotional Indian; the thousands coming to the salon would have identified with the former show of feeling, not the latter’s passionless bearing. Here, the conversation piece – an ensemble of interlinked expressions and poses- is melded with the great genre of history painting itself. West’s treatment of a noble death may not have met with the future Director of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds approval, who advised against mixing the classical heroic scene, e.g. Gavin Hamilton’s Achilles and Patroclus (1765) with modernity; but West’s picture introduced a new mood of experimentation for artists who felt confident in presenting their ideas to this new public. This new wave of confidence helped the Royal Academy rise up and establish itself as the central powerhouse of painting in the British isles from 1770 onwards, though tensions would eventually make its status fragile.
1Solkin, Painting for Money, 179: “For the exhibiting societies Vauxhall offered more than a relevant pattern of the sort of cultural and social experience that they wished their viewers to pay for and enjoy; more too, than a precedent (and indeed a rival) as a space for the public display of art.”