Letter from JAMES BARRY to SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS, written 17 May 1769, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 103-108.

Barry replies to the recent letter from Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) advising Barry not to be distracted from his painting by local squabbles, and to concentrate on the work of Michael Angelo. Reynolds had been elected first President of the newly established Royal Academy and was knighted on 21 April 1769.

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Rome, May 17, 1769.

Dear Sir,

Nothing could have made me more really happy than the very kind letter you favoured me with lately.1 It came most opportunely to support my spirits at a time when I was in the hands of a doctor and surgeon, and ill of a fever, which I believe was occasioned by a cold I got while working in the Vatican;2 but thank God I am tolerably well got over it, and though it has kept me from work some weeks, yet, as I am got back again to the Vatican, and (what with bleeding and other evacuations in my illness) with a better frame of body, there is no reason to be dissatisfied. Whenever the Pope is made,3 which I hope will be soon, I shall go to the Capella Sistina.

There is a passage in your letter, which will be a sufficient excuse for what I am going to tell you, that I think myself rather reprehensible as a furious enthusiast for Michael Angelo, than as regarding him with any degree of coldness or indifference. I saw in his works only that deep knowledge of the human body, and that masterly style of drawing each part in particular, so noble in its form, and so adjusted to, and corresponding with the other parts, that for a naked figure, taken simply as such, there is nothing in painting to parallel him. It is only in the antique4, where one sees the same knowledge and amazing fitness, in the detail of all the component parts of a figure; and if this is not the summum bonum,5 of art, it is at least very near it; so that if, in any of my letters to my friends, I have been a little warm in expressing my feelings of the superiority of the antique to all things whatsoever, in fitness of parts, elegance and propriety of thinking, and indeed every thing that could be shewn in a statue; or if I have said that Raffael6 excelled in possessing the general parts of the art, and was nearest the antique in these things, and that Titian 7alone was the painter of painters, yet I never forgot that there was no examples of the naked to be found except in Michael Angelo, that prodigy, in whose works may be seen the difference at least of two centuries betwixt them and what was done by people immediately before him: one sees Raffael and all his contemporaries, as studiously concealing the naked, (no one chusing choosing to contend it with Michael Angelo in that part) as the other was of shewing it. I know but of two or three examples of naked figures in Raffael, in the Galatea, Diogenes, and Christ in the dispute of the Sacrament, and school of Athens; and his St. John.8 The two former are, you know, not to be mentioned with Michael Angelo; the St. John I will not speak of, as the original is, they say, in France; a comparison betwixt Raffael's Jonas, and Michael Angelo's Christ,9 would turn much in favour of Michael Angelo, though perhaps Raffael may have the advantage in the elegance of his idea and general form. You will excuse my mentioning these things to you, who are so much better acquainted with them already; but I wished to exculpate myself to you, and I will further add, that it was next to impossible that I should think lightly of Michael Angelo, as it is some years since I read a paper in the Idler, which has been pointed out to me as yours.10 I have a notion some how or other, that the arts would be just now of some consequence and pretty much a public concern, did not the state competitors, of whom the papers are so full, divert the attention of the public into another channel. However, I can say with truth, that as nobody is more an enthusiast for art than I am, so there is no one who rejoices more sincerely at the honor honour done art by the title and dignity his Majesty has graciously conferred on that person,11 whose plan of a public exhibition has been as serviceable to the art, as his performances were. The public opinion will supply what I would say.

I am sincerely and heartily obliged to you, for your kind advice with respect to study; it has given me great consolation to find that my whole course of study for near three years I have been in Italy, has been so agreeable to the plan you mention. I had the mortification here to see that I was taking quite a different route from most other people in study, as I never so much as employed myself for two hours upon any thing besides Michael Angelo, Raffael, and Titian, except my studies upon the antique, and nature: my own little things of invention, and a piece of a figure of a Magdalen by Annibal Carrache.12 As I was conscious that my notions of colouring were bad and ill grounded, copying of Titian, for some time, was, I thought, the only advisable course I could take, and I have reason to think I did not judge ill: the way of colouring I had then, was enough to damn even a good design and drawing, more especially amongst such people as ours who are floating about after Magilphs13 and mysteries, and very little likely to satisfy themselves with that saying of Annibal's, "Buon disegno e colorito di fango." 14

It is impossible for me to describe to you what an advantage I had in the acquaintance of Mr. Burke; 15 it was a preparative for, and facilitated my relish for the beautiful things of the arts here; and I will affirm from experience, that one gentleman of a literary turn, and delicate feelings for the ideal, poetical, and expressive parts of the art, is likely to be of the greatest service to a young artist, and will be found the true corrective for those mechanical and practical perfections, which the general herd of painters make such a stir about in their conversations, of which this country furnishes the strongest instance in the world, as a long succession of painters here has so corrupted one another, that there is hardly to be found one ideal beauty, in any Italian painter of the day. I should have the greatest obligations to you imaginable, if you would favor favour me with your discourses at the opening of the academy, which you were so obliging as to promise in your letter.16 I long to read it in our coffee-house;17 as I could wish, by way of revenge upon the enemies of art, to inspire all sorts of artists with that enthusiasm for their profession, which will give vigour to their prosecution of study, and which, from what I have seen in the Idler, I am sure your discourses must abound with. I am, dear sir, with the greatest respect and love.

Your most obliged,
And very humble servant,

J.B. James Barry

I shall be very particular and careful in making such collections of the institutions of the several academies as I can.18

I am tempted to say, by way of apology, for that part of my attention, which, as you observe, was employed upon my disputes with some people here, that though I found it impossible for me not to be uneasy at it, as I saw what advantages it deprived me of (not of copying as you suppose) I saw also an artist for whose person and abilities I had the greatest value, helped out of the world, rather, I am afraid, before his time,19 and that the same thing had happened here before to one Crawley, a sculptor.20 It was impossible, I say, for me not to have been moved at it, and if love of art, friendship for an ingenious man, who was doing honor honour to it, and regard to my own character as a man, and situation as an artist, here a burthen to my friends in England, and deprived of any occasion that might offer for lightening that burthen; if these things could not move me, I do not know what would; but as you so kindly interest yourself in my welfare, I will assure you with great truth, that I have taken care that these anxieties should never interfere with my plan of study, which I saw clearly enough, was the only pillar upon which must be founded all my hopes.

You will oblige me in shewing this letter to Mr. Burke and family, as I shall not write for a few posts to come, and yet would be glad they knew I was alive and well.

For Heaven's sake contrive it so as to get casts and moulds made for the academy, of the four basso-relievos in the garden of the villa Medici,21 the Christ of Michael Angelo, the arms of his Moses,22 and a good many other antiques, of which there are moulds made.