In March 2015, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint will open at the Wallace Collection, providing a fresh perspective on a towering figure of British painting. Yet how well do we really know Joshua Reynolds? Over a series of blog posts Mark Hallett, Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre and co-curator of the exhibition, will provide an introduction to the artist and his highly experimental pictures.
Last week I was in New York, where I spent an enthralling day looking through a selection of Thomas Gainsborough’s drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum. During my time at the Morgan, I also studied a sketchbook that Joshua Reynolds used during his extended stay in Rome at the beginning of the 1750s. Leafing through its pages, I stumbled upon an especially fascinating study by the artist, in which we find him copying a painting that he encountered during his explorations of the city.
The painting he copied, which currently hangs in the Gallerie Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome, is by the seventeenth-century Italian artist Guercino.
To see Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego please click here.
This famous work – which has been discussed in a classic essay by the great art-historian Erwin Panofsky – depicts two shepherds standing in an arcadian landscape, gazing meditatively at a rough masonry structure that is surmounted by a skull and inscribed with the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia Ego. In this instance, the phrase might be understood as the voice of Death, speaking from beyond the grave, and spelling out the fact that he thrives even in this most harmonious and bountiful of environments: ‘Even in Arcady, there am I’.
And here is Reynolds’s drawing, captured rather poorly by my humble mobile phone
Reynolds’s speedily-executed sketch, his jotted commentary on which includes the words ‘Guercino’ and ‘et in arcadia ego’, may seem rather cursory and insignificant at first glance – a rather clumsy piece of graphic shorthand that expresses little more than a fleeting encounter with one of the many works of art on display in the Italian city.
However, as will be explored in detail in Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, the artist was someone who regularly returned to, and experimented with, the pictorial and conceptual templates provided by those works he encountered on his travels. And, indeed, Guercino’s painting – and Reynolds’ drawing after it – can be appreciated as important points of reference and recall for a double portrait that the English painter submitted to the first ever Royal Academy summer exhibition, held in 1769. In the Academy’s catalogue for that year, Reynolds’s picture was described as offering ‘Portraits of two ladies, half lengths. Et in Arcadia Ego’. I illustrate it here through the means of a mezzotint engraving by Guiseppe Marchi, Reynolds’s long-standing assistant:
The work represents two young, elite women, Mrs Harriot Bouverie and Mrs Frances Crewe, who are placed in a dappled pastoral setting and depicted meditating upon a tomb that is inscribed with the phrase ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (the inscription is faintly visible just above Crewe’s outstretched left hand).
Spending a little time looking at Guercino’s and Reynolds’s images side-by-side enables us to appreciate the ways in which the English artist, informed in addition by a succession of other ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ pictures produced in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, has creatively adapted the pictorial model provided by the painting he had studied and drawn nearly twenty years beforehand. Two male shepherds, who stare at the skull in unison, and who clutch staffs in static silence, are replaced by two fashionably-dressed women, one of whom gestures towards the inscription and turns to her neighbour, as if to ask her for her own thoughts on its gloomy message. The gruesome skull painted by Guercino is withdrawn, and the roughly-hewn, weathered structure upon which it perched is transformed into something altogether more elegant and tomb-like. Furthermore, the meaning of the Latin inscription on this monument may also have been understood in new ways by certain viewers, conveying not so much the voice of Death, but that of the figure who is to be envisaged lying in the tomb: ‘I, too, lived in Arcady’.
Intriguingly, it seems likely that the dead, hidden figure who can be imagined uttering this ghostly warning to Bouverie and Crewe was meant to be understood as that of a woman who had been cut short in the prime of her youth and beauty: that at least, was the response of one highly informed commentator of the period, Horace Walpole, who mused that Reynolds’s picture showed Bouverie and Crewe ‘moralizing’ before the tomb of the famously beautiful Lady Coventry, who had recently died following the continued use of an especially toxic form of cosmetics. From this perspective, the two women portrayed by Reynolds can be appreciated as figures of refined sensibility who reflect not only upon the life and death of a fellow-female, but also upon the fragile and precious status of the youth, elegance and companionship that they themselves – two other elite ‘beauties’ of the period – enjoy and embody.
Though Reynolds was never to return quite so explicitly to the theme of ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, the forms of female thoughtfulness and sensibility that are idealised in his double-portrait of Bouverie and Crewe found continual if more abbreviated expression in his later paintings. Look, for instance, at one of the portraits that will be on display in the forthcoming exhibition, that of Jane Bradyll, in which the sitter’s pose and demeanour offer an obvious echo of those seen in Reynolds’s earlier depiction of Bouverie:
We (and Reynolds) might seem, in turning to Mrs Bradyll’s portrait, to have travelled a long, long way from Guercino’s picture – from those rugged shepherds, from that shocking skull, and from the morbid details of the fly and the mouse that are also to be found atop the stone structure depicted by the Italian painter. However, I would suggest that there remains a ripple, even here, of the themes and associations that had been conveyed by the painting encountered by Reynolds during his youthful wanderings around Rome, and that he had first explored and translated via the means of the rather flimsy sketch that today lies quietly in the recesses of a great American library and museum.
PS. Erwin Panofsky’s essay is called ‘‘Et in Arcadia Ego’: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition’, and it is to be found in his book Meaning and the Visual Arts, first published in 1954. It is worth hunting down, and meditating upon.