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1773 Paint and be Damned

Few visitors to the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1773 can have disagreed with The Public Advertiser’s opinion that Sir Joshua Reynolds had that year “exceeded the highest Expectations from him in the Number and Excellence of his Productions.”1 With a total of thirteen works on show, Reynolds had never exhibited so many impressive pictures at a single event, either before or after his appointment as founding President of the Academy.2

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Yet even amidst this display of Presidential dominance, no other work by Reynolds, nor in fact by any other exhibitor, attracted the same degree of attention as Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (Fig. 1). The picture centres on the historical figure Count Ugolino, a medieval Italian nobleman who, after elaborate political intrigues and treachery, was sealed in a dungeon with his sons and grandsons and left to die.3 Making clear his literary source, Reynolds included in the Exhibition catalogue the following quotation from Dante, extracted from the passage in the Inferno wherein the damned soul of Ugolino recounts his own grisly end:

I did not weep, I turned to stone inside;
they wept and my little Anselmuccio spoke:
“What is it, father? Why do you look that way?”
for them I held my tears back, saying nothing,
all of that day, and then all of that night.4

Emerging from the dungeon’s murky shadows, the bearded figure of Ugolino sits with his hands anxiously clasped, his hair seeming to stand on end in terror, while his sons despair and perish around him. For those familiar with Inferno, an extra frisson of horror was added by the knowledge of subsequent verses in which the Count refers obliquely to the cannibalism that ensued in that ghastly cell.

It was not only the picture’s grim subject that attracted the public’s interest but the very fact that the President of the Academy had exhibited for the first time a serious narrative picture, or history painting. Reynolds had a long-standing reputation for executing portraits “in an historical manner” and had recently begun to broach light-hearted mythological subjects.5 But this was the first time he had unequivocally attempted to tell the passionate kind of heroic or tragic story required by this elevated—and uniquely demanding—genre of art.

All of this was so significant because history painting was at the heart of, and even the reason for the existence of, the kind of foreign state institutions that the Academy had been founded to emulate and rival. As the author of a series of essays—the Discourses—which had been published and delivered as lectures before the Academy every year since its founding in 1768, Reynolds had become the country’s principal advocate of those theoretical traditions that set up the poetic and intellectual heights of history painting as the measure of the artistic genius of nations.6 Furthermore, although Britain’s ability to produce a significant school of history painters had long been the subject of patriotic if doubtful debate, a recent spate of royal acquisitions, the prospect of a major commission from Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and the founding of the Academy itself had raised hopes unusually high in the early 1770s.7

How would this first attempt at the supreme visual art by the nation’s leading artist fare? With the stakes so high, Ugolino was never going to escape censure in the jealous and often adversarial eighteenth-century art world. The violence of the backlash against the picture from certain quarters is nonetheless stunning even at centuries’ remove. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser stole an early punch, running a piece by a pseudonymous author insisting that in:

France or Italy everybody would, at first glance, judge [the picture] to be the rude disorderly abortions of an unstudied man, of a portrait painter, who, quitting the confined track where he was calculated to move in safety, had ridiculously bewildered himself in unknown regions, unfurnished with either chart or compass.8

Other reviews in support of Reynolds soon emerged, heaping the customary high praise on his portraiture. Yet even in these instances, a certain caution was reserved for Ugolino; not on grounds of technical ability but because it was felt that the bounds of taste had somehow been exceeded by its subject. Thus, in the opinion of The Public Advertiser, the

Expression is very strong, and amazingly fine; the Chiaro’Scuro [sic] bold and the Colours harmonized in a supreme Degree … and if the same Excellence had been employed on a pleasing Subject, it would have enchanted, as it may now terrify, the Public.9

In his usual cool manner, Reynolds chose to ignore the mixed and sometimes vicious critique of his debut as a history painter, immediately creating the impression of a glowing public reception in a letter to Lord Grantham in faraway Madrid.10 Soon thereafter, he sold the piece to the Duke of Dorset for an unprecedented sum.11 Damage limitation was obviously rather successful for Reynolds himself, yet it remained the case that Ugolino had failed to establish the official leader of the national school as its most acclaimed history painter in the public’s eye, and this must surely have contributed to the waning of optimism about the supreme genre that soon followed at the Academy.12

But is there more to this situation than first meets the eye? Can it ever truly have been Reynolds’s plan to offer an exemplary history painting with an exhibit that, with its overtly painterly manner, rich palette, and tenebrous chiaroscuro, so flagrantly flouted the call in the Discourses for an art of clear narratives painted in a bold, austere style? Furthermore, while the tale of Ugolino had a certain pedigree in British academic theory, stories from Dante were not included among the classical and biblical subjects by which history painters had typically tested their mettle.

Perhaps in Reynolds’s mind, something more attuned to the popular demands of a modern exhibition audience had always existed alongside the loftier motivations for painting Ugolino. Even at this early stage in the Academy’s history, there was an increasing acknowledgement of something stultifying, and simply rather boring, about pictures that stuck too closely to the decorous visual conventions and canonical narratives of classical history painting. As The London Chronicle observed wanly of Benjamin West’s Agrippina and Her Children Mourning over the Ashes of Germanicus (Fig. 2), which was also exhibited that year: “This is rather an hackneyed subject; but the present piece, in design and execution, is not inferior to any that has gone before it.”13

In risking censure and incomprehension for his novel take on the loftiest of genres, Reynolds at least avoided being damned by this kind faint praise. And while this debut was far from an unmitigated success in the short term, it did lead the way to the sensational nightmares of Henry Fuseli and other proponents of the gothic sublime in painting which soon emerged as one of the most distinctive and enduring phenomena of late eighteenth-century exhibition culture.14 If Reynolds’s Discourses were not destined to inspire in Britain a taste for academic history painting, his art, at least, would instil an enduring fascination with horror.

  1. The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1773.↩︎

  2. Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 255–260.↩︎

  3. For an in-depth analysis of this picture, see Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 138–160.↩︎

  4. Translation from Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 141. The catalogue printed the extract in Italian.↩︎

  5. The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1773.↩︎

  6. From 1769, when there were two orations, the Discourses were delivered annually until 1772, when they became a biannual event. See Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, Robert R. Wark (ed.) (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1959).↩︎

  7. Martin Myrone, Bodybuilding: Reforming Masculinities in British Art, 1750–1810 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 97–103.↩︎

  8. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 30 April 1773.↩︎

  9. The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1773.↩︎

  10. Joshua Reynolds to Thomas, 2nd Baron Grantham, 20 July 1773, in John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe (eds), The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 46.↩︎

  11. John Chu, “High Art and High Stakes: The 3rd Duke of Dorset’s Gamble on Reynolds”, British Art Studies 2, doi:10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-02/jchu.↩︎

  12. Myrone, Bodybuilding, 102–104.↩︎

  13. The London Chronicle, 13–15 May 1773.↩︎

  14. Martin Myrone, “Henry Fuseli and Gothic Spectacle”, The Huntington Library Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2007): 289–310.↩︎

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Explore the 1773 catalogue