Letter from JAMES BARRY to DR. JOSEPH FENN SLEIGH, written November 1767, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 139-45.

Barry gives his mentor and friend in Cork Dr. Sleigh a summary of his views on the paintings and sculptures he has seen in Rome and Paris, much as he had done for the Burkes, e.g. in his letter of 5 December 1765.

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November, 1767

Dear Sir,

An excuse for neglect of writing is commonly what begins almost every one of my letters; as it is so generally the case, I must surely be to blame; and yet somehow there might be alleged this—that Mr. Macleane,1 \vho is second Secretary of State in Lord Shelburne's department, told me at Paris, that you either was in London, or would be there very shortly.2 I inquired this of my father,3 but got no answer; besides, I had wrote you two letters from London,4 and since then, not having the pleasure of hearing from you, I was afraid it might not be agreeable to you to be troubled with another. You will also consider how lost I was to myself as well as to my friends on the new scene which opened to me in Italy, of the antique, Michael Angelo, and Rafffael; 5 with which and nature, I have been occupied since my arrival: the moments I could spare from these researches were laid out upon some compositions of my own, whilst the inspiration, allow me to use the word, caught from the antique, was upon me,—really and indeed I never before experienced any thing like that ardor, and I know not how to call it, that state of mind one gets on studying the antique.—A fairy land it is, in which one is apt to imagine he can gather treasures, which neither Raffael nor Michael Angelo were possessed of. A little time will perhaps convince me of the folly and presumption of such deliriums,6 and yet neither time nor argument will or shall ever persuade me that the thing is not possible. We have in the antique a demonstration stronger than any in Euclid,7 that men formerly, in the articles of beauty, elegance, strength of expression, and propriety of character, were able to execute twenty, nay, a thousand times more than Michael Angelo or Raffael. The manner of study is clearly what has baffled and kept back the moderns. No wonder that people who could limit themselves to an imitation of Carlo Maratti, Carrache, Guercino, Corregio, Rubens,8 or even Raffael and Michael Angelo, have done but little. The standard for the arts should, I think, be like the man of virtue of the Stoicks,9 or the orator of Cicero;10 ideal perfections which no man has filled up. We find artists great or trifling according as the standard and guide they set up for themselves, approached the one or the other. Imitations of Raffael are very well—of Carrache, ten degrees less well—of Carlo Maratti, twenty degrees lower, &c.

There is a sad canting and bandying about of unmeaning words, which prevails amongst dilettanti11 and professors of the art, which foments this spirit of imitation.—Instead of considering the Italians in the fifteenth century, and some since, as great artists, they are called great masters; the attempt in a modern of thinking to dispute any capital perfection with the great masters, would be impudence, vanity, and as it were, heresy. The intimidated artist sits down amongst the overgrown tribe of imitators, frightened out of that spirit and freedom of mind which, if indulged and pursued properly, would bring in view perfection; in comparison of which the other is but as the drop in a bucket, or may be counted as the small dust of a balance. But I am afraid you will think I have given too great a loose to myself in ranting all this time; calling the opinions of the world erroneous, the artists for near two centuries baffled and retarded by the folly of their own pursuits, and the possibility of being more beautiful, more correct, more expressive, and more pertinent and exalted in character than Michael Angelo and Raffael, and all this grounded upon certain discoveries made in the antique! you will very naturally say here, it is talking to no purpose, as the world has been long persuaded of the superiority of the antique in all the great essentials of design: if so, I say, that art ought not to have stopped at Raffael and Michael Angelo; but you will further add, that as the excellence of the antiques is no secret, so they have been and are studied by all who form themselves for artists; but this is denied by me. Many people make drawings after them, and are all the while very little more than practising several very curious manners of hatching with, and as they call it, handling a chalk, and but few, very few, think of them in the light I mean.12 This last article is but too true, as I could shew clearly enough, but that I believe it better let alone, at least till I have the pleasure of seeing you, which I hope will be in about three years. In the mean time, for God's sake, do not wrong me so far as to suppose I mean to speak against and contradict the allowed superiority of Michael Angelo and Raffael to all succeeding artists; no one can be more warmly of this opinion than I am, as all the letters I wrote since I came here have verified. When I tell you that my objects of study, since my coming abroad, are purity of design, beauty, elegance, and sublimity of expression, you will not wonder at my preferring the antique to all things, next Raffael and Michael Angelo, Guido13 for some things, Le Sueur, Poussin, Le Brun, and Dominichino;14 these are the artists my heart warms towards, and I have ranged them, I think, just in the order I love them.

The stay I made in Paris, of more than a year,15 gave me full opportunity of seeing into the state of the arts there, and it may be truly affirmed, that amongst the present artists, there does not remain the least vestige of what distinguished the French school in the time of Louis XIV.16 They are either very insipid or exceedingly extravagant; the two Vanloos17 (lately dead) Boucher and Pierre18 are the most noted: to any person who does really and on principle like the antiques, these Pierres, Bouchers, and Le Moiens,19 are little better than a nuisance. There is, however, Greuze,20 who has merit of a solid kind, paints well, and has great sensibility and nature in his expressions: his subjects are taken from common life, generally some family concern; but as you must have seen the prints after him, I shall go on to Mr. Loutherbourg,21 a landscape painter: his manner is somewhat between Berghem and Salvator Rosa,22 and his merit is of the highest kind; not only the so much talked of Vernet23 serves as a foil to him, but even the best landscape painters we have, can by no means be brought into competition with him. Besides Greuze and Loutherbourg, I can mention no living artist that I like in France; yet by the way we must allow Boucher and Pierre, &c. to possess great mechanical merit, but the error is in the conception of things; and you know when an architect is either mad or foolish, the mere materials contribute but poorly either to the beauty or support of a building.

As to the Roman artists, notwithstanding what may be said to the contrary, I have no scruple at pronouncing them not worth the criticising, and I shall with a heart-felt satisfaction say, that Reynolds,24 and our people at home, possess, with a very few exceptions, all that exists of sound art in Europe. You will be desirous of hearing something about our artists here. Hamilton and Nevy are clever;25 but as I cannot praise much, you will excuse my saying more, as neither friendship nor pique,26 to any artist will incline me to abuse you with other accounts than I believe myself to be strictly true. There is a French sculptor here, M. le Brun,,27 who is wonderful in modelling of busts; he has all that graceful finish, spirit, and nature, which is seen in the portraits of Vandyck;28 his entire figures are far from being attended with the same success; he has done a Judith for the church of St. Peters, which is really bad. We have some sculptors here too, amongst whom is a Mr. Nollekins,29 an Englishman, who is extremely well at copying the antique. But for the merit of original sculpture we must leave that with the French, who are by no means either here or at Paris, so much fallen off as their painters. Now we are on the subject of Sculpture, do you remember the basso relievos on the fountain of the Innocents at Paris, the work of Gougeon in the time of Francis the 1st.,30 Puget, Girardon, le Pautre, old Coustou, Bouchardon,31 &c. though all very able, yet have been visibly declining from the elegant simplicity of Gougeon, who has more of what one sees in the antique, than even Michael Angelo, or any other since the revival of arts.

The generality of people think Michael Angelo a better sculptor than painter; without affecting to differ from them, the contrary strikes me to be nearer the truth, whether it is from seeing his statues and the antiques together; I believe it may, but I could with all my soul wish to have you and Mr. Burke32 here, at the Sistine chapel, and the Vatican, &c. that we might admire together the two fathers of modern art, Michael Angelo and Raffael of whom the short sighted criticisms, of what French and English writers33 I have seen, give but a poor and a too erroneous idea: their faults are exaggerated and their beauties not half fathomed.

If there is any thing you would enquire about, whether such a statue is in such a place, how much of it remains, if any building is fallen down, or any picture much decayed, I am on the spot you know, and it but poorly expresses the warmth of my heart, to say I am always at your disposal. God bless you, sir, I am now going to the Torso of the Belvedere,34 and shall conclude myself with unfeigned love.

Your obliged humble servant,

J.B.James Barry

P. S. I have seen the Polymetis in Rome;35 without any doubt it is altogether the most able and useful work upon the heathen deities that ever fell in my way: it has been of the greatest profit to me—but betwixt ourselves, is not his style very droll?—it appears to me that he made use of his daughter (if he had one) for an amanuensis, every thing is so very pretty and ladyish. Oh! the little, pretty, white feet of the Venus de Medicis.36 If you had not recommended it to me, I should be disappointed beyond expectation at finding enclosed in so trifling and coxcomical37 a style, a sense so ingeniously deep, strong, and manly.

Now I am at Rome, where I intend staying two years longer, and shall take up another year, with God's help, in wandering home; my every thing you know, depending upon the kind of applications I shall make, let me beg of you to give me your advice and opinion about the course of study you think most eligible. I will not say I shall follow it implicitly, because I know if I did, you would not send it; but several rash and hasty measures, from which I cannot excuse myself, make me wish to consult such an opinion as yours. I have pressed Mr. Burke to the same effect, and have got some advice from him, and will have more if I can. If a word from either of you would serve me, it is what I am sure you would both wish, and if it does not, why there is no harm done. Be so kind, sir, as to make my respects to Dr. Longfield,38 and to some other gentlemen of your acquaintance, who did me the honor to enquire after me, as my father informed me some time since.39