After reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art, I felt as though he contradicted himself. At the beginning of Discourse III, he states that a “mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” and argues for the captivation of the imagination, through one overarching mode of painting. He believes that one can achieve “Ideal Beauty” if he studies the ancient masters long enough. The ancient Greeks and Romans, (as evidenced by the Belvedere Torso, one of the few unearthed statues in Rome around the time of Pope Julius II, or the beginning of the 16th century), ascribe to imitate nature down to the last muscle.
Sir Reynolds cannot say that “Ideal Beauty” can be learned, while also claiming that “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied.” If we take a look at some of his own Portrait Paintings, it is clear that he had no qualms against copying nature, and personally I don’t see any elements that speak to the imagination.
In fact, his paintings are all very realistic, so I was cheering along when Blake calls Reynolds’ Discourses to the Royal Academy the “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles particularly where he means to Betray,” full of “Self-Contradiction and Knavery.” (463-464).
Where Blake differs from Reynolds is his belief that man is already born with “Ideal Beauty;” that genius is innate, and not acquired. Blake’s main argument is that you cannot learn to be a genius, or as he puts it, “by Thieving from Others become a Michelangelo.” (464).
Blake admires Michelangelo, for his clear delineation of figures, the musculature built up so as to be almost three-dimensional. However, how can he argue that Reynolds is a hypocrite and copies directly from nature when he himself copies Michelangelo? Granted, the medium used is different, but the precise definition of Newton’s body seems to mimic the ideal male form Michelangelo was obsessed with, perfected in Adam in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
From Jonathan Roberts’ William Blake’s Poetry, Chapter 4, he notes that Blake prefers “sharp definition and edges,” and that the “Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colors” (81). With regard to this statement I think that Blake’s mode of thinking that the “best” form of art (that which constitutes figures that are heavily outlined), is a little narrow minded. However, in the search for form, he also searches for truth–the figures cannot escape the lines, they embody their form. The actual process of engraving creates rigid lines, and Blake made sure to color inside those lines. Blake’s Philosophy of Art is not to become the next Michelangelo. Despite his emulation of the Renaissance artist’s style, he speaks of innate genius that manifests itself independent of anything seen in the visible world, therefore striving to become William Blake, the artist, attempting to visibly manifest his poetic genius through his engravings.