Letter from SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS to JAMES BARRY, written April 1769 , at London

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 84-86; also published in Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds, eds. John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe (Yale, 2000), pp. 29-31.

Barry replied to this letter on 17 May, which suggests it was written in late April 1769; in a letter to the Burkes on 8 July, Barry mentions 'a most obliging friendly letter' from their mutual friend Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). [go] Reynolds was England's foremost portrait painter and had recently been elected President of the newly founded Royal Academy. He was knighted on 21 April. Barry had come to know him through Edmund Burke. The editors John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe give the date as '[Before May 1769]' and use Fryer's text.

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Dear Sir,

I am very much obliged to you for your remembrance of me in your letter to Mr. Burke,1 which, though I have read with great pleasure, as a composition, I cannot help saying with some regret, to find that so great a portion of your attention has been engaged upon temporary matters, which might be so much more profitably employed upon what would stick by you through your whole life.

Whoever is resolved to excel in painting, or indeed any other art, must bring all his mind to bear upon that one object, from the moment he rises till he goes to bed; the effect of every object that meets a painter's eye, may give him a lesson, provided his mind is calm, unembarrassed with2 other subjects, and open to instruction. This general attention, with other studies connected with the art, which must employ the artist in his closet, will be found sufficient to fill up life, if it was much longer than it is. Were I in your place, I would consider myself as playing a great game, and never suffer the little malice and envy of my rivals to draw off my attention from the main object, which, if you pursue with a steady eye, it will not be in the power of all the Cicerones3 in the world to hurt you. Whilst they are endeavouring to prevent the gentlemen from employing the young artists, instead of injuring them, they are in my opinion doing them the greatest service. Whilst I was at Rome4 I was very little employed by them, and that little I always considered as so much time lost: copying those ornamental pictures which the travelling gentlemen always bring home with them as furniture for their houses, is far from being the most profitable manner of a student spending his time. Whoever has great views, I would recommend to him whilst at Rome, rather to live on bread and water than lose those advantages which he can never hope to enjoy a second time, and which he will find only in the Vatican, where, I will engage no Cavalier sends students to copy for him.5 I do not mean this as any reproach to the gentlemen; the works in that place, though they are the proper study of an artist, make but an aukward6 figure painted in oil, and reduced to the size of easel pictures. The Capella Sistina is the production of the greatest genius that ever was employed in the arts;7 it is worth considering by what principles that stupendous greatness of style is produced; and endeavouring to produce something of your own on those principles will be a more advantageous method of study than copying the St. Cecilia in the Borghese, or the Herodias of Guido,8 which may be copied to eternity without contributing one jot towards making a man a more able painter.

If you neglect visiting the Vatican often, and particularly the Capella Sistina, you will neglect receiving that peculiar advantage which Rome can give above all other cities in the world. In other places you will find casts from the antique, and capital pictures of the great painters, but it is there only that you can form an idea of the dignity of the art, as it is there only that you can see the works of Michael Angelo and Raffael.9 If you should not relish them at first, 10 which may probably be the case, as they have none of those qualities which are captivating at first sight, never cease looking till you feel something like inspiration come over you, till you think every other painter insipid in comparison, and to be admired only for petty excellencies.

I suppose you have heard of the establishment of a royal academy here;11 the first opportunity I have I will send you the discourse I delivered at its opening, which was the first of January. 12 As I hope you will hereafter be one of our body,13 I wish you would, as opportunity offers, make memorandums of the regulations of the academies that you may visit in your travels, to be engrafted on our own, if they should be found useful.

I am, with the greatest esteem, yours,

J. Reynolds.

On reading my letter over, I think it requires some apology for the blunt appearance of a dictatorial style in which I have obtruded my advice. I am forced to write in a great hurry, and have little time for polishing my style.