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1822 The Triumph of the Everyday

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There may have been 1,049 exhibits at the Royal Academy in 1822, but there was really only one story. Even the readers of the Sporting Magazine were invited to turn their attention temporarily away from “the transactions of the turf, the chase and every other diversion interesting to the man of pleasure”, to wonder at the sensation created by No. 126, David Wilkie’s The Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday, June 22d, 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo!!! (Fig. 1). On this occasion, the diversion in question was a painting possessed of:

such magnetic powers of attraction, that one must consent to be pushed forward and driven back in the flow and ebb of the eager multitude, till he can, through the mighty conflict of broad-brimmed hats and interfering huge straw-bonnets, obtain a glance of this excellent specimen of art. We waited more than half an hour, made many powerful attempts and desperate thrusts, in hope to get a view of this picture; and when at last we approached this most astonishing product of Wilkie’s genius and pallet, we were going to exclaim with Caesar, veni, vidi, but we left the last word for the artist, vici—for the victory is his own.1 

This was not the only instance when a reviewer drew on the metaphors of warfare to characterise the visitors’ struggle to catch more than a glimpse of what was not only the picture of the year, but arguably the picture of the Academy’s first half-century (fifty-three years, to be precise). “We recommend that on future occasions”, wrote the critic for The Literary Gazette,

the pictures of Wilkie may be hung near the ground, there will then be a chance of seeing them; and [in the manner of a company of riflemen] let the first rank kneel, the second stoop, and the third will only have to cast their eyes down.2 

By way of a more immediate solution, a bar was placed in front of the Wilkie to prevent it from being damaged by the throngs of eager admirers—the first time such a measure had ever had to be taken within the Academy’s hallowed walls.

The Literary Gazette’s reference to three ranks of spectators also punningly conjured up an entirely fictive scenario where viewers of the highest class would find themselves kneeling on the floor, beneath the middling orders, and with the topmost position occupied by the denizens of the third and lowest rung of the social hierarchy. In a sense, the Chelsea Pensioners had engineered the creation of just such a world turned upside down, albeit within the symbolic sphere of fine art. For if it was the mission of the Royal Academy to promote the doctrine of the hierarchy of genres, with Grand Manner history at the top and the Netherlandish painting of everyday life somewhere close to the bottom, its efforts had signally failed to achieve any but the most risible results—and the extraordinary success that Wilkie achieved in 1822 was taken by some as a clarion call to give up on a lost cause, and change the rules once and for all.  

The most comprehensive plea for such a fundamental reordering of priorities came from The General Weekly Register, which positioned itself on the side of the ordinary spectator, and against the learned judges of art:

From an acquaintance with Mr Wilkie’s other works, we had long been inclined to believe that our divine artist had chosen that class of subject and kind of feeling, most legitimately entitled to the highest rank. This, his last picture, has almost produced conviction on the point. We are aware of the temerity of our speculation. We know that the critics and the connoisseurs pity and laugh at our humble capabilities for relishing intellectual excellence. We know that to historical painting, properly so-called according to the schools, all are prepared to cede the palm of professional superiority. … [but] Call [Wilkie’s] pictures historical or familiar, or what you like, they are equal to any that have ever been produced. … We will worship them with our feelings, for our feelings are their servants; we will admire them with all our hearts and with all our souls, because they are exquisitely true to nature; and we will place them in the most superior class of art, because they are richly and powerfully dramatic; and because they are so in the particular way, according to which the drama is itself, exalted and successful.3

One factor that facilitated this radical challenge to received academic wisdom was the chronic paucity of history paintings at the annual exhibitions, going back many years; in 1822, there were only three of any consequence, William Hilton’s Caledonian Hunt, Henry Perronet Briggs’s King Lear and Goneril, and Abraham Cooper’s Battle of Strigonium (all unlocated), and none had much popular or critical appeal. There were hardly any more in the way of ambitious landscapes, apart from Augustus Wall Callcott’s Smugglers Alarmed by an Unexpected Change in Hazy Weather while Landing their Cargo (formerly New York art market). Turner’s sole submission, the Watteauesque What you Will! was dismissed by more than one reviewer as a contemptible scrap; and while Constable’s View on the Stour near Dedham was admired as a depiction of “pleasing … rural scenery”,4 this was not the qualification for a work of major significance.  Even the leading portraitists failed to make as much of a splash as usual – the sole exception being Sir Thomas Lawrence, whose full-length of George IV was respectfully received, though without the enthusiasm that greeted his Countess of Blessington, Little Red Riding Hood, or his small head-and-shoulders of the Duke of Wellington.

The longest press notices, however, were devoted to genre painting – of which, according to The Examiner’s Robert Hunt, “there [had] never been so capital a display”.5 While the Chelsea Pensioners may have received the lion’s share of attention, two other artists appear to have planned to capitalise on Wilkie’s success by displaying scenes that also recalled the recent war with Napoleon (who had died just the year previously). Neither William Mulready’s The Convalescent nor Edward Villiers Rippingille’s The Recruiting Party (Fig. 2) was deemed to be without its faults. Yet their strengths – especially in story-telling, and in the rendering of character – contributed to the overall impression that the task of making significant visual statements about the human condition had now passed from historical painting to the art of familiar life. 

  1. Sporting Magazine: Or, Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chase, and every other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure 10 (May 1822): 95↩︎

  2. The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres 6, no. 227 (11 May 1822): 313.↩︎

  3. The General Weekly Register, I (12 May 1822), 211–212. For a fuller excerpt from this passage, and a more extensive analysis of its implications, see David H. Solkin, Painting out of the Ordinary: Modernity and the Art of Everyday Life in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain (New Haven, CT: 2008), 202–203.↩︎

  4. European Magazine and London Review, vol.81 (June 1822), p.563↩︎

  5. R.H. [i.e., Robert Hunt], The Examiner, 12 May 1822, p.301↩︎

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