Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 16 August 1766, at Paris

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 49-52.

Barry has now completed his copy of the painting by Eustache Le Sueur (c.1616-55) called La maladie d’Alexandre, otherwise known as Alexandre et le Médecin Philippe (oil on canvas, 96 x 96cms). He meant it as a present for Edmund Burke and had started work on it soon after he arrived in Paris.

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Paris August 16, 1766.

Dear Sirs,1

I have finished and brought home the copy2 last Wednesday, and only wish for a safe opportunity of sending it to you. Mr. Macleane3 was to have been here before this time, and it was my intention to have left it with him; if he does not arrive before I go, I shall entrust it to the care of Mr. Crammond4 or Mr. Wilkes.5 Of the merit or demerit of the copy, I shall say nothing, but there have been no pains or inclination wanting on my side to make it as exactly like, and to preserve as much the spirit of the original as I could—this was my sole object from the beginning; and those artists who have seen them together, think that I have not been unsuccessful in it. I believe I mentioned to you before my opinion of the manliness and gravity which reign throughout the original, in the characters and dispositions of the figures, the colouring, and masterly style of drapery. The taste of Le Sueur must have been of a very different texture from the glitter and puerility, which is so much admired in some of our rising young people in England. In Le Sueur the essentials are studied with the last degree of nobleness and precision, whilst the most inferior things are not neglected. The others are hunting after peacocks' feathers, and gewgaws to lick up and trim the outside with, never considering whether the kernel, body, or soul of the matter be there or not;6 for it is absolutely impossible for the mind that is little enough to relish such things, ever to have any thing like a thought about the others. Comparing these people together, I think one may see that the corruption and decline of art arises from an over attention to the ornamental parts. Those who best understood oratory and poetry ascribe their fall to this cause.7 The warmest advocates for modern music (I mean, as it is distinguished and separated from poetry, such as Sonatas, &c.) have nothing to shew us but unisons, harmony, and what not; they must confess its powers and impressions to reach no farther than the nerves, whilst they leave to other arts the understanding and the passions.8 It only concerns painting to be divested of all kind of scheme and story, and reduced to a mere harmonical assemblage of blue, green, red, and yellow colours, and it may be made as tickling and agreeable to the eye, as the other is to the ear: it has been more than once attempted, and with the same success, but such contemptible tricks are beneath censure. The vestiges of antiquity have been the inlet and guide in other arts; unhappily nothing of this kind remained for the musicians to form themselves upon,9 so that I cannot say positively, if it is not the single circumstance of its being of modern Gothic10 invention, that has turned me so much against it. I may venture to say as much as this without knowing either the geometrical musical proportions, or the management of any instrument. Whether or not, I will affirm with confidence, that in the arts which I know any thing of, it is evidently the case: the French architecture is entirely daubed over with the beautiful things of art, from Versailles and the Thuilleries to the place Louis XV.11 Indeed it must be granted that their painters are far from being luxuriant or excessive in point of colouring; on the contrary, (this is only what we promise) they are in the other slovenly, dirty extreme. Their affectation lies in the extravagance of expression and attitude, in over-doing the adventitious and decorative parts; Pierre and Boucher12 will be, whilst they are known, striking instances of the grimace of expression, and the outrè and maniere of attitude.13 A retrospect on the periods of improvement of art would still more considerably enforce and elucidate this. The first artists went no farther than the mere inanimate man, horse, &c. The succeeding race made this man, &c. doing something; action, story, and expression were added.14 Posterity were busied in the establishing, adding strength to the expression, beauty to the colouring, and ornament and decoration to the subordinate parts. People who were very able to determine whether this was like a man, horse, &c. or whether this seemed to speak, that to hear, were no longer masters of correct opinions, when matters became more complex, when profusion, ornament, and glitter were poured out before them. If truth and nature are plainly laid down before ordinary capacities, no one is at any loss about it; but it is too true that folly or extravagance of every kind may be so trimmed up,15 so varnished over, as to establish itself in the most popular manner, to the exclusion of every thing else. On recollection, it were better, I believe, I had not wandered so far in matters I am so likely to be mistaken in; but I am easy, as my errors will be far from having any weight in your judgment, whilst they furnish your good nature and indulgence to me with an opportunity of exerting itself. You will probably repent your having let me know that you like the little remarks I have hitherto made, as it will, when I have any leisure, incline me to tire you with them. I shall think of setting out for Italy about the next week, with a heart full of spirits and alacrity, and thank God with excellent health. I have remaining eight louis d'ors, and as I shall want some few shirts and a coat, I shall I believe, apply to Mr. Panshaw, for seven or eight more.16 I have been here a good part of my time, in a most unfixed, idle manner, which made my expenses more than I hope they will be hereafter when I get to Rome.

You will make me the happiest man in the world, in contriving to send my chest off to Rome, as soon as possible, as I shan't know how to do without some things in it. Farewell, and God bless you my dear sirs, I shall, wherever I am, remain most sincerely,

Your obliged humble servant,

J.B. James Barry.

My best respects to my dear friend the doctor, to Mrs. Burke, Mr. Nugent,17 Mr. Ozier,18 and all friends. My compliments to Mr. Reynolds,19 Mr.Barrett,20 Mr Hamilton,21 &c.