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1810 A Study in Contrast

Heaven or hell: this was the choice on entering the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition of 1810.  On the lookout for the kinds of works—and it was still unthinkable that these would be anything other than large-scale history paintings—that might herald a turn towards lasting glory for British art, critics found slim pickings. Yet among the few history paintings on display, there were two contenders: Benjamin West’s Christ teacheth to be humble (Fig. 1) and Henry Fuseli’s Hercules, to deliver Theseus, assails and wounds Pluto

Different in style and subject matter, these two paintings by leading members of the Academy presented exhibition-goers with respective glimmers of Raphael and Michelangelo, of soulfulness and muscularity. They therefore suggested that British art might just be capable of clinging onto a place in the history of “high” artistic achievement, a matter of ongoing anxiety only fuelled by the passing of an earlier generation of Academicians (most recently Paul Sandby, Johann Zoffany, Ozias Humphry, and then, later in 1810, John Francis Rigaud and John Inigo Richards; with John Hoppner’s death that January, the Academy lost six of its members in the space of fourteen months). If that legacy was to be continued, history painting’s veteran practitioners—in this case West (the Academy’s President) and Fuseli (its recently reappointed Professor of Painting), both around seventy years old—needed to offer the right lessons to aspiring artists, their public, and their patrons. What kind of lessons did their exhibits of 1810 impart? 

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Given its “stupendous” scale (“nearly one-fourth of one side of the Great Room”), it is unsurprising both that Fuseli’s painting dominated critical attention and that it no longer exists.1 We can probably get a sense of the composition from an earlier pen and ink drawing of the same subject in which Fuseli depicts the exaggerated muscular physique of naked Hercules as he aims at the equally muscular Pluto (Fig. 2). Deploying the combination of classical allusion, formal invention, and dramatic exaggeration that had been his stock-in-trade for forty years, Fuseli here simplified the mythological narrative into a conflict between light and dark, with Hercules’ clenched fist and arrowhead at the centre of the image. Beyond attack and defence, neither the motivations of the scene’s protagonists nor the effects of their actions were of much interest to Fuseli, whose exhibited painting of this subject seemed to have been produced “not with any view to composition or poetic character, but with the sole purpose of shewing the energetic action of the human figure, and the violence of muscular movement.” Critics praised Fuseli’s “vigorous and extravagant” delineation of his figures, their bold foreshortening and terrifying form, as well as the sheer scope of his imagination.2 He was therefore understood to be following in the footsteps of Michelangelo, who painted “muscles and motion” more than mind.3

Nevertheless, Fuseli’s seemed a particularly mindless composition (“he has given us mere naked mythology”, said one critic4), offering a lot of spectacle but little meaning. This sense was compounded for this commentator by Fuseli’s subject matter, which included the god of the underworld and his attendant hound, the three-headed Cerberus: such a subject was “harsh and unmeaning”, and “might have been left, with propriety, undisturbed amongst the stores of Poetry”, where there are “prodigies and monsters … to which the painter can have no claim from the affinity of his art”. Thus, while Fuseli was praised for undertaking “a subject of such magnitude and difficulty”, he was also censured for having allowed his “too ardent” imagination to stray beyond the accepted boundaries of the visual arts.5 Since none of the figures or elements in Fuseli’s painting referred to “any thing on earth”, the success of their depiction could not be judged, his more literal-minded critics complained.6 It was therefore left only to appraise Fuseli’s idiosyncratic artistic style. Bold and confrontational, that style seemed to “scorn the delicacies of painting” in an open repudiation of art’s conventional role as a provider of charm and delight. Fuseli’s painting was a monster—huge, awful, obscure, and irresistible—and it offered a spectacular lesson in the means by which an artist might “rather amaze (no matter how), than please”.7 

By contrast, West’s single exhibit in 1810 seemed “perfectly simple; without art, without ostentation.”8 The last of seven known versions of this subject to have been painted by West over the previous four decades, this painting offers the artist’s seasoned take on the biblical scene in which Jesus holds up an infant boy as an analogy for the simplicity, innocence, and humility of the Christian soul (Matthew 18:2–5).9 In so doing, Jesus inverts the hierarchy between the humble and the powerful so that (according to the biblical lines excerpted by West for the Exhibition Catalogue) “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” 

West’s image promoted a very different ideal of greatness to Fuseli’s, one based in the open embrace of simplicity and vulnerability, renouncing earthly power and self-aggrandisement. While Fuseli depicted Hercules attacking and wounding his foe, West’s painting shows Christ reaching out to support the soft, fragile body of the child beside him. Critics recognised the parallels to be found between West’s subject matter and the manner of its depiction: if the Christian message was one of simplicity, delivered in a direct and universally touching form (the body of an infant), so too was West’s sweet and static painting. The artist had got to the heart of his subject matter and relayed it in a fittingly simple fashion using gentle tones and soft diffusion of light. Christ teacheth to be humble was therefore judged “as delightful to the eye as it is satisfactory to the mind.”10 From the beginning of his career, such insight and artistic responsiveness to sentiment had earned West public comparison with Raphael.

These qualities probably explain why this painting of the “commandment of Charity” prompted an appropriately charitable response from Richard Hart Davis MP, a fabulously wealthy West Indies merchant, who bought it off the Academy’s walls after West told him about British history painting’s predicament. Hart Davis’ “peculiar spirit of munificence” was hymned in the press, especially since he had offered (and paid) West the extraordinary sum of 1,000 guineas.11

If Fuseli’s painting was an example of gratuitous muscular spectacle, West’s was not without its problems either, since its highly simplified hieratic form, its emphasis upon artless humility, and the exceptional charitable patronage it inspired represented a restrictive and implausible example for aspirant artists working within London’s competitive art world. No wonder that one critic found the painting insipid and undynamic, and seemed to yearn for Fuseli’s touch in finding West’s figure of Christ “not dignified and awful enough for so sublime a character”.12 With these two paintings, the Academy’s Exhibition of 1810 offered contrasting lessons about the state of British history painting.

  1. The Morning Post, 19 May 1810.↩︎

  2. The Monthly Magazine; or, British Register 29, Part 1 (June 1810): 480.↩︎

  3. La Belle Assemblée 1, no. 5, new series (1 May 1810): 248–249.↩︎

  4. La Belle Assemblée, 1, no. 5, new series (1 May 1810): 248–249↩︎

  5. La Belle Assemblée 1, no. 5, new series (1 May 1810): 248–249.↩︎

  6. The Morning Post, 19 May 1810.↩︎

  7. La Belle Assemblée 1, no. 12, new series (1 December 1810): n.p.↩︎

  8. La Belle Assemblée 1, no. 5, new series (1 May 1810): 248–249.↩︎

  9. See Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 339–343.↩︎

  10. The Monthly Magazine; or, British Register 29, Part 1 (June 1810): 480.↩︎

  11. See The Bury and Norwich Post, 11 July 1810; and The Derby Mercury, 12 July 1810.↩︎

  12. The Morning Post, 19 May 1810.↩︎

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Explore the 1810 catalogue