Allan Ramsay's Enlightenment: or, Hume and the patronizing portrait.

Author:Fordham, Douglas
Position:Essay - Critical essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

In 1932 Edgar Wind published "Humanitatsidee und heroisiertes Portrat in der englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts" while still a privatdozent at Hamburg University within the orbit of Aby Warburg's library and method. (1) Wind eventually settled on the more concise and agonistic title "Hume and the Heroic Portrait" for the projected English translation, which is now considered a foundational text in the critical history of British art. (2) Wind proposed that eighteenth-century British portraiture, at its best, shared a common cultural field with philosophical writing--a field on which differing conceptions of human nature could challenge and interrogate each other. In the second half of the eighteenth century especially, according to Wind, this contest was vigorous and revealing. Lined up on one side were the "heroic" moralists, including Samuel Johnson, James Beattie, and the theatrically grand portraits of Joshua Reynolds. The skeptics, particularly regarding a heroic view of human endeavor, faced them on the other side, led by David Hume and the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough.

With the exponential increase in British art historical writing that has taken place in the interim, Wind's polemical distinction between two philosophical viewpoints and their respective champions, Reynolds and Gainsborough, now appears overdrawn and historically reductive. Some of Wind's insights, however, remain as compelling as ever, with their anticipation of interdisciplinarity and their place within a Warburgian school of thought. (3) Historians of British art have greatly extended Wind's methodology by examining Georgian portraiture in terms of the class tensions, gender constructions, political ideologies, and ethnic prejudices that it reveals. (4) As Marcia Pointon has argued, these new lines of inquiry "open onto a politics of representation in which the historical human subject is not a separate entity from the portrait depiction of him or her, but part of a process through which knowledge is claimed and the social and physical environment is shaped." (5) It is in the light of this more expansive and socially constructed notion of representation, and the knowledge claimed through it, that I would like to return to one of the most provocative questions asked by Wind in "Hume and the Heroic Portrait": Was portraiture capable of engaging in serious philosophical debate?

In a crucial early passage in "Hume and the Heroic Portrait," Wind argued:

Portraiture shows this give and take between artists and philosophers especially clearly. Attached to the painting of a portrait is a social situation, in which the artist has to come to terms with an attitude, that of his sitter, an attitude that will often be supported by philosophical views, and which, should the sitter happen to be a professional philosopher, will result in the artist producing--or being obliged to produce--an argument in paint. (6) The real focus of Wind's essay, however, turns out to be portraits of children and thespians, two subject categories particularly open to projection and manipulation--precisely the opposite of the philosophical sitter. When Wind does test his hypothesis, he pits Joshua Reynolds's heavily allegorized portrait of James Beattie (1773, University of Aberdeen) against Allan Ramsay's portrait of David Hume (Fig. 1). It is a stark contrast indeed, with even Wind admitting that "Reynolds's portrait of Beattie gives a very unfortunate idea of his style of heroic portraiture." (7) In such a comparison, Ramsay's portrait of Hume appears self-evidently restrained and transparently "humanistic."

I return to the beginning of Wind's argument, so to speak, to examine whether philosophers really could compel portraitists to construct "arguments in paint." Rather than Wind's hyperbolic dichotomy between Beattie and Hume, I will focus on two portraits initially conceived as a pair: Allan Ramsay originally painted the half-length portrait of Hume (Fig. 1) to serve as a companion piece to a slightly earlier portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Fig. 2). Significantly, Hume's "companion" piece was painted just as his friendship with Rousseau began to disintegrate and, worse, degenerate into a highly public "affair" in the English press. The "Hume-Rousseau affair" pivoted on the issue of royal patronage, a boon sought by Hume, desired yet ultimately declined by Rousseau, and monopolized by Ramsay (at least in the eyes of his fellow artists). (8) The quest for royal patronage effectively links the personal disagreement between Hume and Rousseau to a very real set of philosophical differences underlying their fight. Ramsay's paired portraits became active participants in this debate and material indices of the political and social capital necessary to play the patronage game. It was a game, I will argue, that contained a potent imperial dimension in the 1760s. For it was at the level of political philosophy, particularly as it related to the restive American colonies, that Rousseau, Hume, and Ramsay revealed some of their sharpest, most personally invested differences. By respecting just how profoundly Rousseau distrusted the patronizing structures around him and, conversely, how beneficent Hume and Ramsay deemed those political structures to be, we enable Ramsay's paired masterpieces to resume their debate.

Capturing Rousseau

Ramsay's portrait of Rousseau, which predates the portrait of Hume, merits analysis on its own terms in order to recapture its singular pictorial logic (Fig. 2). Fleeing from persecution on the Continent after the publication of Emile and The Social Contract, Rousseau decided in 1765 to meet Hume in Paris, from where both men could make their way to Britain. (9) Arriving in London in January 1766, Rousseau stayed in the capital until mid-March, at which time he moved into a quiet retreat in Staffordshire. On largely good terms with Rousseau until his departure for the country, Hume began to have misgivings about his friend in May when he realized that Rousseau might reject a royal pension that Hume had helped to procure for him. As the summer of 1766 progressed, their relationship degenerated to the point that it entered the London papers as a full-blown "affair"--that is, a private disagreement avidly followed by the reading public. (10) Chronology is significant, because Ramsay painted Rousseau's portrait in March 1766 while the Genevan was still in London, leading Alastair Smart, the principal authority on Ramsay's career, to interpret the painting as a good-natured document of friendship as well as a naturalistic masterpiece. (11)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

It was naturalism of a very different order, though, from nearly every other work in Ramsay's oeuvre. The broad gestures and atmospheric effects of Rousseau contrast strikingly with the precise handling and delicacy of Ramsay's conventional portraits. As Smart observed, Ramsay abandoned, quite possibly for the first time in his thirty-year career, the use of a vivid red underpainting at the first sitting. (12) Instead, Ramsay worked quickly, directly on the canvas, leaving the shadowy portion of Rousseau's face just as loose and rough as the background. While the overall effect has been said to capture Rousseau's "passionate" temperament, correlations between style and content, paint application and purpose have remained largely tacit in the art historiography. (13)

Rousseau turns to his right in a fur-trimmed Armenian gown and fur hat, or what one English lady referred to as a "very silly ... pellisse & fur cap." (14) Rousseau began wearing the Armenian gown in the early 1760s as a medical expedient for catheters that helped to ease his urinary problems, and it is possible, although not certain, that he chose to wear the gown to Ramsay's studio. (15) Eighteenth-century portraitists were adept at portraying men-of-letters in their "banians" as they engaged in reading, writing, or lounging at home. (16) Rousseau's innovation was to make the philosopher's gown a regular part of his public wardrobe and an important part of his public image. Providing powerful associations with his quasi-autobiographical writings, his critique of cosmopolitanism, and his formulation of "Natural Man," Rousseau's gown provided a potent, multivalent attribute, and one that Ramsay could hardly be expected to view ambivalently.

Largely setting aesthetic judgments aside, Rousseau responded to the portrait as a material index of his relationship with Hume. Initially pleased with the gesture, Rousseau began to question Hume's motives soon after he departed for the country. It was in his rural retreat that Rousseau noticed newspaper articles published at his expense--satires that he believed were encouraged by his "friends" in London. Dismissing the disinterested pretensions of art as thoroughly as those of philosophy, Rousseau began to question how and why Hume and Ramsay wanted to "take" his likeness. On July 10 Rousseau sent a passionate letter to Hume (long enough, in Hume's opinion, to "make a good eighteen-penny pamphlet" (17)), which complained that Ramsay's portrait

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

seemed to me to carry with it too much the affectation of popularity, and had an air of ostentation which by no means pleased me. All this, however, might have been easily excusable, had Mr. Hume been a man apt to throw away his money, or had a gallery of pictures with the portraits of his friends. (18) Rousseau emphasized the exceptional nature of the commission and questioned Hume's motives. In his defense, published as an actual pamphlet in November, Hume responded,

My friend, Mr. Ramsay, a painter of eminence, and a man of merit, proposed to draw Mr. Rousseau's picture; and when he had begun it, told me he intended to make me a present of it. Thus the design of having Mr. Rousseau's picture drawn did not come from me, nor did it cost me anything. (19) This directly contradicts a private letter of March 22 in...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP