Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 5 December 1765, at Paris

Source: Fitzwilliam MS, Wentworth Woodhouse Manuscripts, Sheffield City Libraries, Archives and Information. Printed: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 30-34, Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, eds. Charles William Earl Fitzwilliam and Sir Richard Bourke, 4 vols. (London:1844), i. 86-92.

Fryer heads this letter, ‘Paris, no date’, yet the Sheffield MS is clearly dated in Barry's hand ‘Paris Dec. 5. 1765’. Fryer's editorial changes from the MS are given in the notes, but not his much heavier punctuation.

Full display

Paris Decbr 5. 1765

My Dear Sir's, Sirs, 1

I shall without troubling you with apologies & excuses proceed to give you my opinion such as it is of the pictures &c that I have seen here,2 & as perhaps what I shall say does not square either with the critical notions of the world or the more popular ones, I wou'd be very uneasy about the truth & certainty of it but that it comes into your hands from whom I have already experienced so much indulgence & partiality. Had I here the advantages I enjoyed in England of hearing your remarks on these things before I had ventured out my own, I woud would have but little diffidence about it.

I find there is little use to be made of the general remarks & criticisms of those who have written characters of the artists & brought their merits & defects to a Standard & fix’d Classes tis 'tis liable to so many exceptions that one is every day in danger of being mislead who lays any weight upon them: men are not always the same, they are sometimes attentive to one manner sometimes to another, different subjects & a number of other things often make them very different from themselves. There are some who are generally defective in Light & Shadow, that3 sometimes produce fine effects of it, the same may be said in composition & the other parts of the art, whether this is the effect of chance or design I will not affirm, but I am sure of the fact. This consideration obliges me to lay aside the common practice of determining the merit or demerit of every individual performance by the general Character of the Artist, tho though I shall allow it freely to the Bulk of the world as decisions by that means are more facilitated since they are freed from a number of embarrassing circumstances & consequently come more within the reach of every fine Gentleman who has a Taste.4

Not to wander too far from that wch which is more properly the subject of my Letter I shall present you, not with a Catalogue of every thing I have seen at the Palais Royal,5 ye the Luxembourg,6 versailles7 &c but with such accounts as I can of the things wch which struck me most, 'tho though I absolutely confess it out of my power to express the thousandth part of what I felt upon the sight of two pictures at the Palais Royal, the first (& indeed incomparably the first 8picture I ever saw in my life) is by Le Seur, Alexander drinking the potion & looking on his Physician whilst he reads the Letter,9 here is every thing I wish’d for in a picture, the Style of the figures is to the last degree great, noble & unaffected, the Story told in the most interesting manner, ye the colouring & every thing that regards the execution is exceedingly sweet & perfect, this is not a picture done in the Juveline10 state of the Art when one perfection must attone for a number of imperfections, here is no brickdust sooty colouring, nothing staring, no want of harmony 'tho though 'tis design’d in the most exalted Gusto.11 The other picture by my favourite Nicholas Poussin is Moses striking water from the Rock,12 ‘tis the best design’d picture I have seen of his, & you know he is always exquisite in this part, the Coloring Colouring , Clear Obscure13 & composition is so much above every thing else of his that one would be tempted to think it ye the work of a different hand but that you see approaches to this manner in some of his other pictures add but a little mellow & tenderness to the colouring & tis ultimately perfect. the largest of these two pictures does not exceed the size of your Dargle:14 if you think proper I should stay here a little time I woud would be glad to send you copies of them as I am sure they are perfectly agreeable to your wishes, permission is not difficult & by writing to some of your accquaintance acquaintance it may be easily procured.15

There are four pictures of Poussin’s in the Luxembourg representing the four Seasons in stories taken from the Scriptures16, viz Adam &Eve in the Garden for the Spring, Booz & Ruth, ye the Summer, Joshue & Galeth bringing home the Bunch of Grapes & the universal Deluge for the Autumn & winter,17 those pictures 18 are design’d with the usual Judgment & fine fancy of Poussin & yet are wooly woolly , dry, & very inferior in point of execution, colouring & effect to his other picture of the Moses & c. the picture of the Deluge is design’d admirably, there is but few objects19, two figures in a boat overset by a Cataract lifting up their hands to heaven, some heads & leggs legs appearing above the water & all the rest such a wild dreary waste as freezes one with horror whilst it presents him with the truest picture of Desolation. There is a picture in the Luxembourg of Jupiter & Antiope by Coregio,20 the sweetness, harmony & spirited penciling pencilling in this picture,21 that ability which still is so conspicuous in the manual part makes me very doubtful22 about the originality of those wch which go under his name that I have seen in England.

I came over here with the most profound veneration for every thing of Raphael’s; his Madonnas & Holy Family’s at the Palais Royal & at the Luxembourg are very far from confirming it,23 shoud should I make use of my own Eyes as Artists generally do when they are minded to cull out & to profit by what they have seen these pictures of his should not prevent my applying to other sources for almost every particular excellence in the Art: I shall not however change my opinions of him, I have every Expectation from his larger compositions at Rome, his History of Cupid & Psyche24 & his pictures from the New & old Testament ye the very prints of wch which are more than sufficient to retain me.25 Le Seur’s history of st Bruno painted in the Cloisters of the Chartreux26 has much exceeded any Idea I could form of it before I went there (my opinion of him is every day encreasing), 'tho they are very much injured by some envious hand, they are sufficiently perfect27 to shew show how much Le Brun28 or his disciples (to whom this piece of rascality29 is ascribed) had to fear from such a performance in wch which every thing is excellent even to the touching of the Landscapes & backgrounds wch which are in the highest taste both of invention & execution.

There are some Antique Statues at Versailles wch which I admire exceedingly particularly that of a young man taking off or putting on his sandals before or after bathing wch which has left me but little relish for that profusion of Modern Statues wch which are up & down ye the Gardens,30 'tis a most delightful earnest to me of what I am to expect at Rome, I can believe the antients31 capable of any thing after this. 32Gougeon & Bouchardon were I think the best french Statuaries,33 we have here two fountains34 the Bassorelievo’s35 & figures do them both very great honor honour . Old Coustou & Le Pautre had great merit in the same way 36 & next I think comes Falconer, Girardon, Pigal & Puget the worst of wch which I think much above any we have, 'tho though it may not be proper in me to say it.37

What I have seen since gives me more & more reason to admire Mr Reynolds, you know my sentiments of him already,38 & the more I know & see of the Art, the less likely they are to change. Please to remember me to my freind friend Mr.Barrett & tell him that Mons.r Vernet tho though fine has very little to surprize him39 who has seen the Snowden or the premium picture.40 My most sincere respects to the Doctor, certainly France has been very much changed since he has been in it, for there is but little of his deep extensive knowledge to be discover’d amongst the medical people here.41 I hope M.rs Bourke, Mr Rich.d Bourke & Mastr. Ric’d M.r Nugent Mr Ozier & ye the family enjoy the Good health & Satisfaction I left them in42 which no body wishes them more Sincerely than Dr Dear Sir's Sirs 43

Your Oblig’d Humble Servant

James Barry

My Compts Compliments 44 to MessrsNettervil
Creagh, English
Hamilton45 &
to all friends. –
Paris Dec.r 5. 1765