Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Discourses’: Anticipating a Movement beyond the ‘Form’ towards Ontology in Art

Ashmita Mukherjee

Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


The paper tries to read the ‘Discourses’ or speeches addressed between 1769-1790 by Sir Joshua Reynolds to his students as the first President of Royal Academy of Arts, London, as a gradual movement of aesthetics from interminable formal/particular debates to theories of romantic emanation or still later, of a sense of ontological being, complete with historical awareness and temporal situation. Reynolds’ statements require analysis not as mere pre-romantic ambiguities but definitive aesthetic reflections on ancient and contemporary art with an increasing cognizance of particularity as a tenet of modernity in art.

Keywords: Aesthetics, Ontology, Reynolds, Form, Particular, History Painting

One of the major concerns of 18th century Aesthetics was the fascination with the pure ‘form’ or the ‘Ideal’. If, in accordance with the predominant train of western aesthetic thought since antiquity, all art was considered imitation, then the closest approximation to geometric abstracts could be met in the most simplistic of art: outlines of the form, free from added embellishments of color or texture, which tend to increase rather than decrease the removal of the art object from the Ideal. Sir Joshua Reynolds was known to have addressed to his students thus:

A firm and determined outline is one of the characteristics of the great style in painting; and, let me add, that he who possesses the knowledge of the exact form, that every part of Nature ought to have, will be fond of expressing that knowledge with correctness and precision in all his works. (Reynolds, 1st Speech)

Yet it has been observed that what imparts the best art objects their splendor is the precision and detailing with which the particulars of its model are represented in all life-likeness to the viewer. Clearly there is already an acquaintance with two definite aspects of imitation in visual or plastic arts: 1. imitation of the conceived abstract ideal or the ‘form’, like pure geometric concepts; and 2. imitation of a perceived object that is a single instance of perception only, such as an algebraic variable x. To return to the general trend that pervaded most aesthetic influences in the west, one must return to Socrates, in the Theatetus where he states that knowledge is true belief with an account (c. 369 B.C, p.201d-210a). The idea clearly invokes the twin tenets of rational thought or validity of argument on one hand, and the subjectivity of opinion on the other. The proportion of each element in this tricky phrase induced debates in the academia as to what exactly must constitute the admixture in what quantity. Ages later, the influence seems to have lost not much fervor as even Hegel, in his lectures on aesthetics recognizes artistic judgment broadly in terms of 1. Content and 2. Presentation. (Hegel, 1975) In other words, art-object must comprise of the ideal ‘form’ to be striven for and the particular instance to be simulate. The concern led up to the crucial question of artistic representation: What must the artist imitate or what would be the object of an artist’s study?

The stock answer was of course, that the artist must imitate ‘Nature’. But within it loomed inherent ambiguities that grew out of a tradition of skeptical doubt over perceptive capacities of Man; and a yearning for universal perfection attached to the special meaning of the word ‘Nature’. It was a collective Ideal that was free from customary deficiencies and therefore impossible to be located in a single individual object or model.

Among numerous discourses on art at a time when aesthetics was for the first time being treated with concerns other than metaphysical, I would attempt to see The Seven Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds in the light of the much criticized ambiguities that seemingly fail to draw up a ‘system’ of aesthetic philosophy. In the critical climate of neoclassicism, many certainties were shaken, contrary to the simplistic association of the 18th century with methodology and encyclopedic classification. Aesthetic doubt is integral to it. How far is observed beauty true? At the same time, is not Truth devoid of ‘form’ if it is not absolutely beautiful? Initially, Reynolds’ ‘Discourses’ give expression to the greatest aversion of the neoclassical aesthete: the aversion to deformity or disfigurement. It is the artists’ creed to rise above the deformities that are all made available to him for the real world, to extract the true ‘form’ to be imitated to perfection:

Thus it is from a reiterated experience, and a close comparison of the objects in Nature, that an artist becomes possessed of the idea of that central form… from which every deviation is deformity. But… I know…of one method of shortening the road…by a careful study of the works of the ancient sculptors; who, being indefatigable in the school of Nature, have left models of that perfect form behind them, which an artist would prefer as supremely beautiful… (Reynolds, 1st Speech)

What Reynolds seems to suggest now, is an approximation of the form by extensive study of numerous particulars. The act of ‘subsuming’ was similar to the mathematical set in which the Ideal was the universal set imbibing subsets of particularities. Spinoza’s concept of the ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ became the indispensable expression to describe the primacy of the eternal form. There is, however, ample space for obvious shortcomings to this formulaic venture of perfecting art by leaping from particular to the ideal. Being well read in a vast canon of art history, possessing a natural love for reason and being of a very malleable disposition, Reynolds did not fail to see the inadequacy of the compromised resolution of the Ideal/particular debate. It was interesting that Reynolds did not seem to mind ambiguities, thus displaying mildly relational tendencies throughout the ‘Discourses’ that puzzled critics way into the 20th century…Full Text PDF

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