Analysis of Sir Joshua Reynolds Second Discourse to The Royal Academy Regarding Theory and Practice

Sir Joshua delivered the second installment of his 15 discourses a little over eleven months after his first on December the 11th 1769. He opens by praising the students for their current accomplishments and then proceeds to discuss his theory of Art. The purpose of his theoretical model of Art was to aid the students in their primary objective, which was namely directed at closing the gap between their current level of proficiency and, ‘how much yet remains to attain perfection.’ The central theme of the Second Discourse examines the nature of the independence of the student from the direction of the teaching establishment. To this end Reynolds emphasizes the importance of hands on methodological practices above mere ideology. Thus, building upon the basis of his First Discourse Sir Joshua divides his methodological theory into three inter-related aspects and three periods of study. He explains;

“I shall address you as having passed through the first of them, which is confined to the rudiments… of drawing any object that presents itself… the management of colours, and an acquaintance with the most simple and obvious rules of composition… The power of drawing, modelling, and using colours, is very properly called the language of art… when the artist is once enabled to express himself with some degree of correctness he must then endeavour to collect subjects for expression; to amass a stock of ideas… he is now in the second phase of his study.”

The ‘second period of study’ pertains to the second aspect of theory which Reynolds refers to in the discourses preamble. This period of study involves viewing the Art of the Old Masters in its entirety wherein the student should, ‘consider the Art itself as his master.’ Here Reynolds is careful to warn the student of Art against,’admiration of a single master’, because it would, in his opinion, impede the development of a students imagination with, ‘narrowness and poverty of conception.’ Reynolds instead advises the student of Art to, ‘not resign blindly to any single authority, when he may have the advantage of consulting many.’ Reynolds second aspect of Art theory, is to view the Art of the Old Masters without preference, and this aspect merges subtly into his third aspect of the theory. Sir Joshua explains the third aspect as not dependent or beholden to any of the Old Masters but places the student in a position of complete autonomy. Reynolds explains;

“The third and last period which emancipates the student from subjection to any authority, but what he shall himself judge to be supported by reason. Confiding now in his own judgement… He is from this time to regards himself as holding the same rank with those masters whom he before obeyed as teachers; and as exercising a sort of sovereignty over those Rules which have hitherto restrained him.”

Continuing, Reynolds explains that through a period of intensive practise, a painter begins to develop the necessary artistic skills and knowledge base by emulating the work of the Old Masters. However, this knowledge base is, in Reynolds view, a foundation which the artist is to eventually transcend. What is the student of Art to progress toward after having reached a level of competence equivalent to that of the Old Masters? Sir Joshua explains that the next level to utilise for artistic instruction are the works of Nature itself. The artist is henceforth to become second only to Nature, and it is Nature that must become his constant guide and companion, and act as the measure by which the success or failure of a painters efforts can be evaluated. Reynolds states this succinctly;

“The habitual dignity which long converse with the greatest minds has imparted to him, will display itself in all his attempts; and he will stand among his instructors, not as an imitator, but a rival… comparing no longer the performances of Art with each other, but examining the Art itself by the standards of nature.”

Having defined the three aspects of his theory to the students, Reynolds notes that this general outline lay in advance of the students current level of artistic proficiency. Recall that the Second Discourse was delivered following an awards ceremony at the Royal Academy. The awards that were dispensed were the Academies mark of esteem, bestowed upon those of its students, who at this time had passed through the first level of instruction in accordance with Reynolds first aspect of theory. The students were now poised to acquire the insights of the second aspect of theory, but were unaware of the procedure for doing so. This is the reason why Reynolds offered an early description of the complete path of learning, namely to assist the student of Art to understand his ultimate objective and the means of attaining it. However, in order to prevent the over-eager student from bypassing training in the second aspect of theory and rushing ahead to the third aspect, Reynolds encourages the student to develop a thorough understanding of the methods and works of the Old Masters. He explains;

“The more extensive your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention… Who shall show him the path that leads to excellence? The answer is obvious: those great masters who have travelled the same road with success are the most likely to conduct others. The works of those who have stood the test of ages, have a claim to that respect and veneration to which no modern can pretend.”

While progressing along the second aspect of theory, Reynolds cautions against the tendency to copy the work of the Old Masters without exercising ones powers of invention, because as he suggests, it numbs the imagination and an artist, ‘sleeps over his work’, so to speak. Reynolds adds that the only saving grace of pure copying is its use as a tool in leaning how to use the coloured pigments of ones palette to the best advantage. He adds;

“By close inspection and minute examination you will discover the manner of handling, the artifices of contrast, glazing and other expedients by which good colourists have raised the value of their tints… by which nature has been so happily imitated.”

Sir Joshua proceeds to reiterate the primacy of utilising the natural world as the ultimate model for the artists eventual imitation and instruction, stating, ‘you cannot do better than have recourse to nature herself… in comparison to whose splendour the best coloured pictures are but faint and feeble.’ Reynolds explains that the purpose of studying the work of the Old Masters is necessarily a means to perfect the students inner vision, rather than as a definite end in and of itself. In this respect, Sir Joshua advises the student to paint an original work in the spirit of an Old Master and then to physically hold the resulting painting up beside that of the Old Master. This act of contrast is an effective device for revealing the students areas of deficiency, and is a method which Reynold explains, is superior to verbal instruction in directing the student toward improvement. Reynolds uses the analogy of a competition to illustrate his point;

“You should enter into a kind of competition, by painting a similar subject, and making a companion to any picture that you consider as a model… place it near the model, and compare them carefully together. You will then not only see, but feel your own deficiencies more sensibly than by precepts… and sinking deep into the mind, will be not only more just, but more lasting than those presented to you by precepts only.”

Sir Joshua explains that the above practice is difficult for those who lack the humility to
accept the evidence of their failings. He comforts the students of Art however by reminding them that of those who have, ‘the ambition to be a real master..few have been taught to any purpose, who have not been their own teachers.’ Again Reynolds cautions the student to avoid absolute independence of thought while they are engaged in the practice of the second aspect of theory. He suggests that the models that the student of Art should choose for preliminary imitation should be, ‘of established reputation,’ and that this should be in preference to following, ‘your own fancy.’ In this respect Sir Joshua personally recommends the student to observe the work of Cavacci and suggests that they should avoid teachers who would offer, ‘ expedients… by which the toil of study might be saved.’ He explains further that a student absorbed in the lessons appropriate to the second aspect of theory has to rely on hard work to realise their goal of equalling the abilities of the Old Masters. Reynolds adds;

“Excellence is never granted to man, but as the reward of labour… I need not, therefore, enforce by many words the necessity of continual application.”

Reynolds explains that one important facet of the Old Masters abilities was their capacity for drawing accurately from memory with, as Reynolds says, ‘as little effort of the mind as is required to trace with a pen the letters of the alphabet.’ This, Reynold suggests, was the result of the same constant efforts which he has been urging the students of the Royal Academy to adopt. Reynolds praises constancy in drawing as, ‘the instrument by which’, the student, ‘must hope to obtain eminence.’ However, after pointing out the fact that various schools belonging to the history of Art followed disparate methods of drawing, Reynolds is careful to add almost as a kind of disclaimer that he had given his advice;

“From my own experience, but as the deviate widely from received opinions, I offer them with diffidence, and when better is suggested, shall retract them.”