Letter from JAMES BARRY to ANON, written ante 1 May 1775 , at Rome

Source: Morning Chronicle, 1 May 1775.

This extract from a letter by Barry was published in the Morning Chronicle soon after the opening of the exhibition at the Royal Academy where his drawing Pandora was on show. This has since been lost. The original letter was probably written on a much earlier date. Pressly argues that it was 'probably' one of the letters Barry wrote from Rome when he was interested in Raphael's picture Cupid demanding Psyche from Jupiter (Barry to Burke, c. February, 1770). The letter was published in 1775 by a 'friend' 1 so as to give readers a more detailed explanation of the drawing in the exhibition (Pressly, Life and Art, p. 26).

Among Barry's papers used by Fryer was 'Fragment on the Story and Painting of Pandora' (Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 141-66).

Full display

- 'THUS it is that Rafaelle2 has upon the whole, and in this essential particular, most deservedly carried away the palm from his co-temporaries, and Poussin's remark, that Rafaelle was an angel compared with the moderns, and an ass to the ancients,3 though too strongly expressed, is yet not without some foundation in truth. Mr. Webb is very right in his observation, that Rafaelle has succeeded best in the middle walk of characters, in Apostles, Philosophers, &c.4 his His judgment, which was most excellent, had not sufficient materials to work upon in the higher sphere; some of the finest antique statues were not yet discovered in his time, and even of such as were, men had not fully digested their opinions about them, as the treasures of Greek learning, which only could have afforded light into these matters, were as yet almost unopened. It is therefore no wonder, that through the whole range of Deities in his History of Cupid and Psyche at the Ghigi Palace,5 he has mistaken and improperly treated almost every one of them: you have copies of two of those pictures at Northumberland-house,6 and may compare them with the passages in the ancient poets where those Deities are described,7 and also with the Greek statues, of which you have many casts. You will find that his Jupiter, with hair like white wool, is not Homer's ,8 but is in the common-place idea of God the Father, and originating from that passage in the Prophet Daniel9 of the Ancient of Days. The Mercury likewise is so far from being the delicate, beautiful youth described in the Odyssy Odyssey ,10 that he is musculous enough to supply, upon occasion, the place of his grandfather Atlas.11

The same fault is observable in the female figures, they all of them seem to be cast in the same gigantesque mould, by which means the Minerva, Juno, &c. are not of larger proportions than Venus and the Graces. Nothing is more common than this error, many of our modern painters and sculptors appear to see nothing further in those Deities that than certain attributes and insignia; by putting on an helmet and gorgon any girlish proportion is made to signify a Minerva;12 the petasus and caduceus make a Mercury;13 and the eagle, Jupiter.14 Nothing can be more ridiculous than this error; it is the very reverse of the practice of the Greeks, who, by a most ingenious refinement, have admirably distinguished the different Deities by such peculiar proportions and formation as belong properly to the idea of such characters, and we might as well deviate from the features in a portrait as err in this. But to return to Rafaelle, his work of the Cupid and Psyche, though it be wanting in these and other particulars, yet it abounds with that divine fire and enthusiasm which will ever make it regarded as one of the noblest productions of modern art.

Thus much premised, I must tell you, that whether, from an ill-grounded vanity, or from some worthier motive, (no matter which) I feel a strong desire to try my own skill and strength with this picture of Rafaelle. Hesiod has furnished me with a parallel subject, which is, indeed, more interesting, and full of action, than that of Rafaelle's from Apuleius:15 it is Pandora, or the Heathen Eve, brought into the assembly of the gods, attired by Venus and the Graces, and instructed in domestic duties by Minerva. Apollo is singing the Hymeneals,16 and Mercury putting on his Talaria to carry her down to Epimetheus, her husband.17 The Horae are strewing flowers, and Hebe carrying round nectar on the occasion;18 two of the Parcae,19 sitting in a cave of clouds behind Jupiter, are employed upon her destiny, whilst the other is coming forth with that well-known casket which contains her portion.20 As science first reared its head in Egypt, I have brought in Father Nilus21 listening with attention to the song of Apollo upon the nuptials of this first woman; the Tiber sits next to him; and the Thames, who (unhappily for me, is too wise to concern himself with any thing but politics and party) is represented (I hope not improperly) as in a profound sleep.

I send you this sketch as one of those pensieris22 which sometimes flash across my mind, and which, perhaps, I shall never be employed to put in execution: therefore, if you should know any painter, of abilities, more fortunate than I have been, who may have patrons to countenance him, or some little independence to support him, you would do well to persuade him to set about this work, as except the mere mention which Pausanias makes of a basso-relievo of Phidias upon the pedestal of the statue of Minerva,23 it is altogether a virgin subject, and perhaps one of the finest remaining of the ancients,

I am your's, &c.