Letter from JAMES BARRY to Dr. JOSEPH FENN SLEIGH, written c. 10 December 1765 , at Paris

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 38-40.

The letter was written after Barry had offered to copy the Le Sueur painting of Alexander for Burke (Barry to Burke, 5 December 1765) and before he wrote excitedly about the young French painter Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) in January 1766, since he intimates here that he is not pleased with ‘living French artists’. In addition, the letter was probably written before Burke's brother Richard arrived in Paris in mid-December, a visit Barry would probably have mentioned to Sleigh.

Dr.Joseph Fenn Sleigh (1733-70), a Quaker, art connoisseur and physician had been Barry's mentor and friend in Cork; he had been instrumental in introducing Barry to Edmund Burke in 1763.

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Dear Sir,

The shame of so long a silence would prevent my writing to you at present, but that I can never think of adopting the maxim of supporting one wrong step by another;1 this I leave to the politicians, for whom (if I remember well) it was intended, and shall sincerely acknowledge, that although my attention was, as it must naturally have been, very much occupied with the new scene presented to it since my arrival in France, yet I think I could have found some little leisure, at one time or other, for a few lines to him whom I shall never forget, whilst I have left any esteem for learning, or love and feeling for goodness of heart. To your goodness I owe Mr. Burke and his family, which in one word is owing you every thing that is essential to me ; but as you know of my obligations to this family already, and amongst other things of my being where I am, and going to Rome at their expense,2 I shall leave this theme to give you such accounts as I can of what I have seen here. Though I think you must be as little pleased as I am with the living French artists;3 and the pictures of Le Sueur,4Poussin,5 Le Brun,6 Jouvenet,7 and the capital things of the Italian schools have not been augmented since you were here.8

All the merit of the modern French, and I think a great deal more, may be found in a single performance of Le Moine's,9 whose effect is pleasing, his attitudes variegated into what may be called a pretty manner: his forms are agreeable, though I should say form, for he has one agreeable head for his men, one for his women; it is enough for the sake of variety, if a beard and a few furrows now and then are introduced, if the cheeks swell out or fall in, though the monotony is as visible, as it is in a puppet show, where the same voice is traceable in all the personages from Scaramouch up to king Solomon.10 We are not to look for dignity, character, or indeed any of the leading parts of the art in him; but then without meanness or deformity, he possesses an agreeable assemblage of all the lesser ones in a superior degree. This man, with a little of the outrè11 of Boucher,12 one of the professors of the academy, is the model and standard. There are, however, here a few who by no means come under what I have said, as Restout,13 a nephew of Jouvenet, who is, I take it, the only follower of the old French school, and Greuse, who is in the Flemish manner.14 Vernet15 may also be excepted, and I believe one more, but I do not know enough of them yet, to say they are distinguished for any great perfections. Character in the different classes of men is very little attended to by the French artists, either painters or sculptors, (though I think the last very superior to the former,) and indeed it is not to be wondered at, since even in life it is entirely lost here; politeness and artificial carriage is too general amongst them, and laying the garb, &c. aside, it is only in dialect or other refinements of expression or thought that they differ, whilst every thing in the gesticulation, and all other externals, that are characteristic in art, are visibly the same. There is a picture at the palais-royal of Alexander, taking the potion from his physician, by Le Sueur, that I shall copy when the weather is warm enough to sit in the rooms without fire, which is one of the conditions of permission. As I am resolved to let slip no opportunity of improvement, I go to St. Luke's academy every night to draw after the living subjects which are provided there.16

I shan't be so troublesome as to repeat my desire of hearing from you, though I could wish it of all things, and cannot help hoping the two letters I have received, will not be the only memorials I shall have of you when there is any opportunity of serving me. However, whether I hear from you or not, I hope you will pardon the wish of it in one who has so much reason to love you as,

Your humble servant,

J.B.James Barry

I shall set off for Italy, about April next.17