Tag Archive: Sir Joshua Reynolds


Blake’s inscription, “Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature & Imitation,” is just one of many nonsensical phrases scrawled onto “The Laocoon.” When examined in the context of Reynolds’ Discourse of Art, it becomes clear that Blake is using “The Laocoon” to satirize Reynolds. In Discourse of Art, Reynolds claims “a mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” a sentiment clearly reflected in Blake’s graffiti upon “The Laocoon” (Reynolds, 41). This graffiti is accompanied by phrases such as “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian” (Blake, 352). Since this statement cannot be considered true, it is safe to assume that none of the statements scribbled on “The Laocoon” should be taken seriously, once again hinting at a satirical message. Blake’s metaphorical comparison of art to religion hints that he is condemning more than just Reynolds’ message about art and artists, however. He is also hinting at art’s relationship to religion. In his reaction to Discourses on Art, Blake writes, “the Enquirey in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius? But whether is he Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science” (463). From this statement, we can conclude that Blake believes that the link between religion/politics and art is not a natural one, but a forced one. His comparison of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to art’s deliverance from nature and imitation makes sense—he is mocking Reynolds, but on a deeper level, he is mocking artists who are “obedient to Noblemens Opinions,” whether that is in regards to art, politics, or religion.

Blake takes great offense from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, as both men have radically different theories on art, however, some of their arguments, with their contradictions, overlap. Because Blake was not truly trained as a painter, but rather an engraver, he was never considered a fellow of the Royal Academy and thusly faced a bias from intellectual society towards his engravings. As Reynolds argues that the “Ideal Beauty” that artists portray is learned from experience–Blake, being an outsider of the Royal Academy asserts that “Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he Knows I say on the Contrary That Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him.”

Blake’s Philosophy of Art emphasizes a certain–dare I say, mechanical–precision. He centers his ideal on the fact that “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Reynolds would argue that this method of creating art is the work of a “mechanik…[a] capricious changeling.” In essence, he is right regarding the mechanical part–however Blake does not paint with “Minute Neatness” to merely imitate, but to capture the image of the sublime. He goes to great depths to render his work as a product of vision: “Determinate & Perfect”–a snapshot of the artistic imagination. He demonstrates the “mechanical dexterity” of the artist that Reynolds praises of the “the Young Painter.”

So then it becomes a question of authority–Reynolds sees Blake as a mechanistic copier, deceiver while Blake looks at Reynolds with contempt as a man of contradiction–one who writes “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles articulately where he means to Betray.” So who is right? Well, both of them, kind of: Blake sums it up nicely by stating that “Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye–Such the Object.” It is actually an answer of perception: what does the artist see? That is what the artist portrays, as according to Blake “All Forms are Perfect in the Poets Mind.”

Reynolds vs Blake

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.

Let’s compare.

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.