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to insert the following critique on his merits and imperfections, from the pen of that distinguished ornament of his art, the late Sir Joshua Reynolds.
"Rubens appears to have had that confidence in himself, which it is necessary for every artist to assume when he has finished his studies, and may venture, in some measure, to throw aside the fetters of authority; to consider the rules as subject to his controul, and not himself subject to the rules; to risk and to dare extraordinary attempts without a guide, abandoning himself to his own sensations, and depending upon them. To this confidence must be imputed, that originality of manner by which he may be truly said to have extended the limits of his art. After Rubens had made up his manner, he never looked out of himself for assistance; there is consequently very little in his works that appears to be taken from other masters. If he has borrowed any thing, he has had the address to change and adopt it so well to the rest of his work, that the theft is not discoverable.
"Beside the excellency of Rubens in these general powers, he possessed the true art of imitating. He saw the object of nature with a painter's eye; he saw at once the predominant feature by which every object is known and distinguished, and as soon as seen, it was executed with a facility astonishing; and let me add, this faculty is, to a painter, a source of rich pleasure. How far this excellence may be perceived, or felt by those who are not painters, I know not: to them certainly it is not enough that objects be truly represented; they must likewise be represented with grace, which means here, that the work is done with facility and without effort. Rubens was, perhaps, the greatest master in the mecha
nical part of the art, the best workman with his tools, that ever exercised a pencil.
"This part of the art, though it does not hold a rank with the powers of invention, of giving character and expression, has yet in it what may be called genius. It is certainly something that may be learned by frequent examination of those pictures which possess this excellence. It is felt by very few painters; and it is as rare at this time among the living painters, as any of the higher excellencies of the art.
"This power, which Rubens possessed in the highest degree, enabled him to represent whatever he undertook better than any other painter. His animals, particularly lions and horses, are so admirable, that it may be said they were never properly represented but by him. His portraits rank with the best works of the painters who have made that branch of the art the sole business of their lives, and of those he has left a great variety of specimens. The same may be said of his landscapes : and though Claude Lorrain finished more minutely, as becomes a professor in any particular branch, yet there is such an airiness and facility in the landscapes of Rubens, that a painter would as soon wish to be the author of them as those of Claude, or any other artist whatever.
"The pictures of Rubens have this effect on the spectator, that he feels himself in no wise disposed to peck out and dwell on his deserts. The criticisms which are made on him, are indeed often unreasonable. His style ought no more to be blamed for not having the sublimity of Michael Angelo, than Ovid should be censured because he is not like Virgil.
"It must, however, be acknowledged that he wanted many excellencies which would have perfectly united with his style. Among those we may reckon beauty in his female characters: sometimes, indeed, they make approaches to it: they are healthy and comely women, but seldom possess any degree of elegance. The same may be said of his young men and children: his old men have that sort of dignity which a bushy beard will confer: but he never possessed a poetical conception of character. In his representations of the highest characters in the christian and the fabulous world, instead of something above humanity, which might fill the idea which is conceived of such beings, the spectator finds little more than mere mortals, such as he meets with every day.
"The incorrectness of Rubens, in regard to his outline, oftener proceeds from haste and carelessness, than from inability; there are in his great works, to which he seems to have paid more attention, naked figures, as eminent for their drawing as for their colouring. He appears to have entertained a great abhorrcnce of the meagre dry manner of his predecessors, the old German and Flemish painters, to avoid which he kept his outline large and flowing; this carried to an extreme, produced that heaviness which is so frequently found in his figures.
"Another defect of this great painter is, his inattention to the foldings of his drapery, especially that of his women; it is scarcely ever cast with any choice or skill. Carlo Maratti and Rubens are, in this respect, in opposite extremes; one discovers too much art in the disposition of drapery, and the other too little. Rubens drapery, besides, is not properly historical; the quality of the stuff of which it is composed, is too accurately
distinguished, resembling the manner of Paul Veronese. Their drapery is less offensive in Rubens, than it would be in many other painters, as it partly contributes to that richness which is the peculiar character of his style, which we do not pretend to set forth as of the most simple and sublime kind."
Notwithstanding all his defects," says Du Fresnoy, "his manner is so solid, so knowing, and so ready, that it may seem this rare accomplished genius was sent from heaven to instruct mankind in the art of painting."