He does seem to have been a fan of Turner’s, specifically his way with light. In 1814’s Appulia in Search of Appulus, the artist adapted the Ovidian tale of an Italian shepherd transformed into an olive tree, and Hazlitt admired the glowing Claudian landscape. But “the figures are execrable… an impudent and obstrusive vulgarity”, he wrote. “The utter want of capacity to draw a distinct outline with the force and fullness of this artist’s eye for colour is astonishing.” Ouch.
Perhaps, Hazlitt’s most famous quote of all also came at Turner’s expense, in reference to Snow Storm: Hannibal & his Army Crossing the Alps and his tendency, as his career progressed, to indulge in the atmospherics of a scene, almost to the point of abstraction. Hazlitt lamented how “all is without form” and Turner “painted pictures of nothing, and very like”.
Forever forthright, in many ways Hazlitt is as relevant now as ever – our digital age being one when everyone on earth seems to be a critic, yet the art of criticism extends little beyond “Liking” and “Sharing”.
Gainsborough also came in for stick; likewise David Wilkie, the “genre painter” of scenes from everyday life. Wilkie was hugely popular, his works – like 1806’s Blind Fiddler, of an itinerant musician playing for a humble, country family – often requiring barriers at the Royal Academy to protect them from admiring throngs. Hazlitt, however, found genre scenes rather base and contrived. “I don’t remember a single joke in Wilkie,” he wrote, “except that very bad one of the boy in Blind Fiddler [mimicking the violin-player by] scraping a gridiron.”
Whether you find yourself agreeing with Hazlitt or not, what’s undeniable is the vigour and lucidity of his prose. He was a critic as artist-in-his-own-right, redeemed from being the mere servant of an artist, poet or playwright.
Hazlitt was also a pioneering critic, appearing at a time when public galleries were first being established (the National Gallery in 1824, for instance); and when technological developments were bringing newspapers to a mass audience. The steam press’s invention in 1814 meant they could be printed in thousands (rather than hundreds), while mail coaches allowed them to reach all corners of the land quicker than before.
Interestingly, in his youth, Hazlitt was a painter himself: a portraitist of not inconsiderable talent, if the self-portrait on show is anything to go by. He broods in it like a quintessential Romantic hero.
He kept a special interest in portraiture throughout his life, preferring artists who gave a rich sense of character rather than just pander to how an aristocrat wished to be painted.
Impudent: 'Apullia in Search of Appullus', 1812, by JMW Turner (Copyright: Tate)
Part of the very English tradition of Rational Dissent – à la Newton and Locke – Hazlitt demanded a truth from portraiture and lambasted George III’s favourite, Benjamin West, in particular. Portraits like Lady Beauchamp-Proctor “exhibit the mask, not the soul, of expression”, he wrote. “Mr West saw nothing in the human face but bones and cartilage… as might be given to wooden puppets pulled by wires.”
All of which begs the question, who, if anyone, did Hazlitt actually like? Well, Hogarth, certainly, for his honesty. He also seems to have liked history painting – though not in the idealising manner of Richard Westall and Sir Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy). Hazlitt commented that, in Reynolds, “there’s often no connection between the picture and its subject but the name”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hazlitt racked up enemies at quite a rate. His attacks extended beyond the art world into literature, politics and most spheres of public life. He also maintained the highest regard for Napoleon, going on a depressed, drinking binge after Waterloo and insisting the dictator had remained true to the principles of the French Revolution.
What really did for Hazlitt, though, was an ill-advised affair with a landlord’s daughter half his age, followed by his even more ill-advised declaration of that affair in the book Liber Amoris. It became a stick which all his moralising opponents could beat him with. His reputation never really recovered – and nowadays he’s barely read.
The Tate display goes some small way to reviving him, as well as allowing us the intriguing chance to see painters we now consider masters through the eyes of an unimpressed, contemporary critic. As someone who trashed Turner and Gainsborough, one purrs at what he’d have made of the homogenised, commercialised, art world of today – and how surgically he might have cut into it.
‘William Hazlitt: Through the Eyes of a Critic’, Tate Britain, to Apr 5; tate.org.uk 020 7887 8888
Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object. -- It is not so difficult to explain this term in what relates to expression (of which it may be said to be the highest degree) as in what relates to things without expression, to the natural appearances of objects, as mere colour or form. In one sense, however, there is hardly any object entirely devoid of expression, without some character of power belonging to it, some precise association with pleasure or pain: and it is in giving this truth of character from the truth of feeling, whether in the highest or the lowest degree, but always in the highest degree of which the subject is capable, that gusto consists.
There is a gusto in the colouring of Titian. Not only do his heads seem to think -- his bodies seem to feel. This is what the Italians mean by the morbidezza of his flesh-colour. It seems sensitive and alive all over; not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling in itself. For example, the limbs of his female figures have a luxurious softness and delicacy, which appears conscious of the pleasure of the beholder. As the objects themselves in nature would produce an impression on the sense, distinct from every other object, and having something divine in it, which the heart owns and the imagination consecrates, the objects in the picture preserve the same impression, absolute, unimpaired, stamped with all the truth of passion, the pride of the eye, and the charm of beauty. Rubens makes his flesh-colour like flowers; Albano's is like ivory; Titian's is like flesh, and like nothing else. It is as different from that of other painters, as the skin is from a piece of white or red drapery thrown over it. The blood circulates here and there, the blue veins just appear, the rest is distinguished throughout only by that sort of tingling sensation to the eye, which the body feels within itself. This is gusto. -- Vandyke's flesh-colour, though it has great truth and purity, wants gusto. It has not the internal character, the living principle in it. It is a smooth surface, not a warm, moving mass. It is painted without passion, with indifference. The hand only has been concerned. The impression slides off from the eye, and does not, like the tones of Titian's pencil, leave a sting behind it in the mind of the spectator. The eye does not acquire a taste or appetite for what it sees. In a word, gusto in painting is where the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another.
Michael Angelo's forms are full of gusto. They every where obtrude the sense of power upon the eye. His limbs convey an idea of muscular strength, of moral grandeur, and even of intellectual dignity: they are firm, commanding, broad, and massy, capable of executing with ease the determined purposes of the will. His faces have no other expression than his figures, conscious power and capacity . They appear only to think what they shall do, and to know that they can do it. This is what is meant by saying that his style is hard and masculine. It is the reverse of Correggio's, which is effeminate. That is, the gusto of Michael Angelo consists in expressing energy of will without proportionable sensibility, Correggio's in expressing exquisite sensibility without energy of will. In Correggio's faces as well as figures we see neither bones nor muscles, but then what a soul is there, full of sweetness and of grace -- pure, playful, soft, angelical! There is sentiment enough in a hand painted by Correggio to set up a school of history painters. Whenever we look at the hands of Correggio's woman or of Raphael's we always wish to touch them.
Again, Titian's landscapes have a prodigious gusto, both in the colouring and forms. We shall never forget one that we saw many years ago in the Orleans Gallery of Acteon hunting. It had a brown, mellow, autumnal look. The sky was the colour of stone. The winds seemed to sing through the rustling branches of the trees, and already you might hear the twanging of bows resound through the tangled mazes of the wood. Mr West, we understand, has this landscape. He will know if this description of it is just. The landscape background of the St Peter Martyr is another well-known instance of the power of this great painter to give a romantic interest and an appropriate character to the objects of his pencil, where every circumstance adds to the effect of the scene,--the bold trunks of the tall forest trees, the trailing ground plants, with that cold convent spire rising in the distance, amidst the blue sapphire mountains and the golden sky.
Rubens has a great deal of gusto in his Fauns and Satyrs, and in all that expresses motion, but in nothing else. Rembrandt has it in everything; everything in his pictures has a tangible character. If he puts a diamond in the ear of a Burgomaster's wife, it is of the first water; and his furs and stuffs are proof against a Russian winter. Raphael's gusto was only in expression; he had no idea of the character of anything but the human form. The dryness and poverty of his style in other respects is a phenomenon in the art. His trees are like sprigs of grass stuck in a book of botanical specimens. Was it that Raphael never had time to go beyond the walls of Rome? That he was always in the streets, at church, or in the bath? He was not one of the Society of Arcadians.2
Claude's landscapes, perfect as they are, want gusto. This is not easy to explain. They are perfect abstractions of the visible images of things; they speak the visible language of nature truly. They resemble a mirror or microscope. To the eye only they are more perfect than any other landscapes that ever were or will be painted; they give more of nature, as cognizable by one sense alone; but they lay an equal stress on all visible impressions; they do not interpret one sense by another; they do not distinguish the character of different objects as we are taught, and can only be taught, to distinguish them by their effect on the different senses. That is, his eye wanted imagination: it did not strongly sympathize with his other faculties. He saw the atmosphere, but he did not feel it. He painted the trunk of a tree or a rock in the foreground as smooth -- with as complete an abstraction of the gross, tangible impression, as any other part of the picture; his trees are perfectly beautiful, but quite immovable; they have a look of enchantment. In short, his landscapes are unequalled imitations of nature, released from its subjection to the elements, -- as if all objects were become a delightful fairy vision, and the eye had rarefied and refined away the other senses.
The gusto of the Greek statues is of a very singular kind. The sense of perfect form nearly occupies the whole mind, and hardly suffers it to dwell on any other feeling. It seems enough for them to be, without acting or suffering. Their forms are ideal, spiritual. Their beauty is power. By their beauty they are raised above the frailties of pain or passion; by their beauty they are deified.
The infinite quantity of dramatic invention in Shakespeare takes from his gusto. The power he delights to show is not intense, but discursive. He never insists on any thing as much as he might, except a quibble. Milton has great gusto. He repeats his blow twice, grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.
- "Or where Chineses drive
With sails and wind their cany waggons light."
* * *
"Wild above rule or art, enormous bliss."
1 Hazlitt's "On Gusto" was first published in the The Examiner, May 26th, 1816 and can be found reproduced in The Round Table.
2 Raphael not only could not paint a landscape; he could not paint people in a landscape. He could not have painted the heads or the figures, or even the dresses of the St. Peter Martyr. His figures have always an in-door look , that is, a set, determined, voluntary, dramatic character, arising from their own passions, or a watchfulness of those of others, and want that wild uncertainty of expression, which is connected with the accidents of nature and the changes of the elements. He has nothing romantic about him.