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1826 Rival Models for History Painting

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In the first of its series of notices about the Royal Academy Exhibition for 1826, The Examiner wrote that the representation of historical pictures, though “comparatively small among the accumulated mass of pictures”, was “still a good and cheering one”.1 The health of history painting in exhibitions of the Academy was an ongoing critical concern. Among the handful of names mentioned by The Examiner as upholding the genre was Benjamin Robert Haydon.

The Examiner’s second piece on the Exhibition opened with an extended commentary on Haydon’s Venus and Anchises, painted for the Earl of Leicester (Fig. 1). The subject, as described in the Exhibition Catalogue, was:

Venus[,] being in love with Anchises, suddenly appears before him as he is playing his lyre at the entrance of his retreat on Mount Ida, and pretends to be the daughter of Otreus, King of Phrygia, who has lost her way. 

In the opinion of the reviewer, Haydon “has here indisputedly attained to that classic eminence which places him among the standard Painters of preceding times.” The emphasis was on Haydon’s mastery of colouring, noting that: “the Painter has adopted the Venetian style, as most suitable to the gentle and amorous expression of the subject.” Apart from the encomium on Haydon’s use of colour, little was said of his choice or treatment of the subject, only the wish that: “the Artist had given to Anchises a more marked expression of admiration for so inspiring an object as Venus suddenly appearing before him.”2 The Sunday Times was more mixed in its evaluation:

In the composition of this picture there is much to praise, but there is considerable hardness in the execution. The drapery of Venus is heaped on her in too great profusion, and has all the appearance of being imitated from marble. Still the whole produces a vivid impression on the spectator, and one that cannot be easily accounted for, as the list of objections might be still farther extended.3

Yet among all the paintings of historical and literary subjects in the Exhibition Rooms, the one that garnered the greatest praise was not strictly a history painting, though it did have a fourteenth-century setting: Edwin Landseer’s The Hunting of Chevy Chase, painted for the Duke of Bedford, and hung not in the Great Room but in the School of Painting (Fig. 2). Landseer was a rising young animal and sporting painter, who had studied with Haydon. The painting was accompanied in the Exhibition Catalogue by lines from the popular border ballad Chevy Chase, published in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, in 1765:

To drive the deere with hound and horne
Erle Percy took his way;
The chiefest harts in Chevy Chace
To kill and beare away4

The ballad makes clear that the riotous hunting scene portrayed by Landseer is but the prelude to a pitched battle between the men of the English Percy, Earl of Northumberland and the forces of Scottish Earl Douglas, in which both leaders were killed. The bloody aftermath lends a dark significance to the violence inherent in the hunting scene, portrayed with clear allusions to the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders.

The Sunday Times found the painting “a very brilliant effort” and described it as “replete with life”; its presence “great and imposing.”5 Noting the connection with Snyders and Rubens, The Examiner found “the action and expression are so raised above common life, as to claim the noble rank of History.” The reviewer concluded, “We recommend not only Students, but our historical painters, to look investigatively at this work, in order to see, analyse, and feel, the mode and the principles that have effected the most perfect picture, of its class, that has yet been seen in this country.”6

Haydon’s Venus and Anchises was the first picture that he had sent for exhibition with the Academy since 1809, when he had been outraged over the hanging of his The Celebrated Old Roman Tribune, Dentatus, Making his Last Desperate Effort against his own Soldiers, who Attacked and Murdered him in a Narrow Pass. Haydon’s unhappiness over the Dentatus and his subsequent failure to gain election as an Associate led to him publishing a series of letters in The Examiner in 1812 that bitterly attacked the Academy, which would have made further association with the Academy seem almost unthinkable. But at work on the Venus and Anchises in the spring of 1826, he was advised by supporters to send the picture to the Academy. He noted in his journal on 21 March, “after having said what I have said & written what I have written, it would not, it could not be consistent,” but clearly he was tempted and sought to convince himself that the situation had improved from the time of Dentatus.7 In early April, he wrote, “The greatest part of the men now leading are my old fellow students. The Academy is not what it was when I attacked it.”8 He resolved to send the Venus and Anchises and a Portrait of a gentleman, hoping that this might lead to a reconciliation with the institution, though continuing to worry that by doing so he was violating his principles.

Unlike Haydon’s tortured relationship with the Academy, Landseer was a darling of the institution, and in 1826, at the same time that Haydon was once again campaigning for election and failing to garner a single vote, Landseer was elected Associate (he would become an Academician in 1831). While Haydon does not seem to have commented on The Hunting of Chevy Chase, its enthusiastic reception and the claims being made for it as an exemplar for history painters must have rankled. On 14 May, he confided to his journal:

E. Landseer keeps a gig, though he has not paid for his room, yet nobody finds fault, but whatever I do is watched, as if a volcano would be the consequence. I can’t eat, drink, sleep, dress, or undress, without criticism.

He followed this with a chart showing the major artists of the day either indebted to Wilkie, Turner, or himself. Landseer appears under Haydon’s name.9

Landseer’s continued successes and Haydon’s own failures preyed on Haydon’s mind. In the 1840s, in the annotations to his copy of Bell’s Anatomy, Haydon recorded: “No Man was / more indebted / to me than / Edwin Landseer / & no Man so ungrateful.”10

  1. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Examiner, 7 May 1826.↩︎

  2. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Examiner, 14 May 1826.↩︎

  3. “Royal Academy—Fifty-Eighth Exhibition”, The Sunday Times, 4 June 1826.↩︎

  4. The spelling reproduces that of Academy Catalogue for 1826.  The quotation combines two lines from the second stanza with two lines from the fourth stanza.↩︎

  5. “Royal Academy—Fifty-Eighth Exhibition”, The Sunday Times, 4 June 1826.↩︎

  6. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Examiner, 21 May 1826.↩︎

  7. “March 21, 1826”, Willard Bissell Pope (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 87↩︎

  8. “April 1, 2, 3, and 4, 1826”, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 89–90.↩︎

  9. “May 14, 1826”, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 99.↩︎

  10. John Bell, The Anatomy of the Human Body, 3rd edn (London: T.N. Longman and O. Rees, 1802–04), copy owned by Benjamin Robert Haydon, with his annotations, Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts QM23 B14 1802+ Oversize.↩︎

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