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From July 24th to September 16th, 1781, Reynolds was absent from London on a tour through Holland and the Netherlands. His admirable criticisms on the Dutch and Flemish painters were mostly written during this journey. He was fascinated by the gorgeous hues of Rubens, and on his return he thought the colouring of his own pictures deficient in force. He made another, excursion to the Low Countries in 1783, when the works of Rubens appeared less brilliant than before. On his first trip he jotted down his remarks in a note-book as he stood opposite the pictures, and he conceived that the white paper formed a foil to the colours on the canvas and imparted to them unusual warmth. In the interval between his visits he emulated the fuller tones of Rubens, and Northcote believed that the difference in Sir Joshua's impressions, when he went back to the Netherlands, was chiefly occasioned by this change in his practice. That white has the effect of refreshing the eye, and rendering it more sensitive to colour, is an ascertained fact; but the contrasts dependent upon previous experience have a greater effect still. The magnificence of the Flemish masterpieces was not tried by the same standard on the second visit as on the first, and the richness of Rubens seemed diminished because that of Reynolds himself had increased. The notorious influence of the imagination in exaggerating to the memory the beauties which originally struck us with surprise would alone have caused the pictures to fall below his expectations when he renewed his acquaintance with them.
In 1784 Reynolds exhibited his Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, which was said by Barry to 'be 'both for the ideal and executive the finest picture, perhaps, of the kind in the world,' and which Lawrence pronounced to be indubitably the finest female portrait ever painted. Stothard said that Mrs. Siddons had the most exquisite union of feature and expression he had ever beheld. Notwithstanding her commanding person, she had, in her youth, a face of such delicacy and refinement that he thought her far lovelier when seen close in a room than when seen from a distance on the stage. Lawrence had the same opinion of her superlative charms; for when he contended that no countenance was so perfect as not to require some correction from the artist, he remarked that' even in the majestic head of Mrs. Siddons there were parts which did not appear to belong to her.' Her extraordinary beauty and genius stimulated Reynolds to unusual exertion. 'The picture kept him,' says Northcote, 'quite in a fever,' and he had never been known to betray equal anxiety about any of his works. Mrs. Jameson relates that at the first sitting Sir Joshua led Mrs. Siddons to the platform, and said, * Ascend your undisputed throne; bestow on me some idea of the Tragic Muse!' 'I walked up the steps,' added Mrs. Siddons, in repeating the incident, 'and instantly seated myself in the attitude in which the Tragic Muse now appears.' She told the same story in substance to Miss Fanshawe, who recorded it in her journal immediately afterwards. On the other hand, Mrs. Siddons informed Mr. Phillips, the painter, that Sir Joshua had begun the head and figure in a different point of view; that while he was preparing some colour she changed her position to look at a picture, and that the present portrait was the result. Neither of these contradictory anecdotes can be strictly correct. The general idea of the composition was manifestly suggested by the Isaiah of Michael Angelo in the Sistine Chapel, and Reynolds must have worked from the outset upon the plan he had framed in his own mind. Mrs. Siddons believed that it was solely through her interference that the Tragic Muse was arrayed in solemn robes. She assured Sir Martin Shee that Sir Joshua was only prevented by her entreaties 'from tricking her out in all the colours of the rainbow.' Mr. Leslie concludes that she was mistaken. Either her memory deceived her, or she had misunderstood the intentions of the painter. The whole of her recollections with respect to the picture were confused and inaccurate, unless the errors were due to the reporters of her conversation. She stated to Miss Fanshawe that the original portrait was in the Dulwich Gallery, and that she did not think that the duplicate in the Gallery of the Marquis of Westminster was from the pencil of Sir Joshua at all. It is well known that the picture of Lord Westminster as genuine, that it was not a duplicate but the original, and that it is much superior to the repetitions. 'It hangs,' said M. De la Roche, the French painter, 'opposite to one of the finest works of Titian, and it is impossible to say which is best, but each reflects lustre on the other.'
The days of Reynolds continued to flow on with a prosperity which seemed almost exempt from the common casualties of life. With the exception of his slight paralytic attack, in 1782, he had been hardly acquainted with illness. He was congratulated at the age of sixty-six on his healthy and youthful appearance, and he replied that he felt as he looked. Just at this time the scene suddenly changed. In July 1789 his left eye became affected by gutta serena, and in a few weeks the sight had perished. There was reason to believe that the right eye was ready to give way, and the hazard of exerting it compelled Reynolds to abandon his profession. Artists had usually painted sitting till Reynolds introduced the custom of painting standing. His object in the change was that he might be able to see the
effect of his work by stepping backwards. Malone supposed that the habit had answered the additional end of protecting Reynolds from the evils of a sedentary calling. His sedentary life, however, was probably the cause of his malady, which was subsequently found to be associated with derangement of the liver. He was neither a tippler nor a glutton, but he ate and drank freely, while he took little exercise beyond what the practice of his art afforded. His excellent constitution had been slowly gathering the seeds of disease, and when the crisis arrived the mischief had proceeded too far to be checked.
'In the fifteen years,' says Malone, 'during which I had the pleasure of living with Sir Joshua on terms of great intimacy, he appeared to me the happiest man I had ever known.' Boswell shared the impression, and Johnson quoted him as an instance of a thinking person who was never troubled with melancholy, but was the same all the year round. He was now deprived of his life-long occupation in a moment. He had early adopted the maxim that 'the great principle of being happy was not to be affected by small things.' He showed in his closing days that he could apply the principle under grievous affliction. He made the most of the resources which remained to him. He looked with the old enthusiasm at the master-pieces in his gallery, he occasionally cleaned and touched a damaged picture, and he found some occupation in the business of the Academy. Mr. Leslie remarks that his fondness for birds appeared by the manner in which he introduced them into his pictures, and he solaced part of his weary leisure with a little bird he had tamed. His favourite flew away, and he wandered for hours round Leicester Square in the fruitless hope of reclaiming it. He was fortunate in his domestic circumstances. When his sister left his house he had the two Miss Palmers, his nieces, for inmates. One had since become Mrs. Gwatkin; the other, afterwards Marchioness of Thomond, remained to tend upon him with assiduous affection. His friends gathered round him, and strove to beguile the tedium of his existence. He had all the amusement which could be derived from dinners, conversation, whist, and country visits. To some his social ease might seem an enviable lot, but a perpetual holiday was a heavy burthen to a man whose profession had been his pleasure for fifty years.
In the midst of his trials a painful incident took place at the Academy. The professorship of Perspective had long been vacant, which Reynolds thought was much to the discredit of the institution. He endeavoured in vain for some years to get the office filled bv a competent person. He at length became acquainted with M. Bonomi, a foreigner, who was a proficient in the theory and practice of the science. None but Academicians were eligible to the post; and when it was proposed, as the first step towards the necessary qualification, to elect M. Bonomi an associate, he was only chosen by the casting vote of the President. The opposition was stronger still when M. Bonomi became a candidate for the full honours of the Academy. An obscure pamphleteer of the time, from whom Northcote borrowed his account, alleged that Reynolds espoused the interests of Bonomi out of deference to the Earl of Aylesford, and this supposition, which was a mere pretence to excuse a factious proceeding, is repeated by Farington. The circumstances completely contradict the imputation that Sir Joshua, to oblige a friend, had tried to force an unworthy member upon the Academy. Long before M. Bonomi was heard of, Reynolds had repeatedly urged the duty of finding a Professor. He insisted that merit, and not favour, should determine the choice, and he supported a resolution, which was carried in the Council, that the candidates should send specimens of their abilities in perspective draughtsmanship. Bonomi furnished two drawings, which Barry said 'would do honour to the greatest academy in the world,' and Mr. Leslie, who had seen them, bears witness 'that they fully deserved the praise.' The true cause of the unworthy cabal appears to have been the jealousy which frequently instigated Sir William Chambers to oppose his influence to that of the President. The election of the new academician was fixed for Feb. 10, 1790, and a large majority, under the leadership of Chambers, voted against Bonomi. In the excitement of the contest they treated Reynolds with gross discourtesy, and his self-respect compelled him to resign his office. As he himself said 'he was driven from the chair.' He drew up a statement of the case for publication, but the academicians did not dare to justify their conduct, and before he could print his defence, they passed a resolution in which they virtually admitted that they were in the wrong. Sir Joshua was highly gratified. He immediately withdrew his resignation, and the reconciliation on all sides seems to have been hearty and sincere. He was conscious that his remaining reign could not be long. He delivered his final Discourse on Dec. 10, 1790, when he informed his auditors that 'hisage, and his infirmities still more than his age,' would probably never permit him to address them again. His Lecture was chiefly devoted to the mighty master from whom he had derived in his youth his highest inspiration, and he wound up with saying, that the last words he wished to pronounce from the chair of the Academy was the name of Michael Angelo.
His disorders made rapid progress. Miss Burney saw him in July, 1791, when he was greatly dejected by the apprehension that the failing sight of the right eye would soon consign him to total darkness. The enormous enlargement of his liver, which was overlooked by his physicians, was the secret cause of a deeper melancholy. His wonted cheerfulness forsook him, and his friends could no longer dissipate his abiding despondency. In December he was aware that death was approaching. A friend tried to comfort him with the hope of returning health, and he answered, “I know that all things on earth must have an end, and I have come to mine.’ His composure returned when he became sensible that his departure was at hand. “Nothing,’ wrote Burke on Jan. 26, 1792, “can equal the tranquillity with which he views his end. He congratulates himself on it as a happy conclusion to a happy life.” Enthusiasm for his art had enticed him in his prosperity into a partial neglect of his religious duties. His sister, Mrs. Johnson, had earnestly remonstrated with him for painting on Sundays; and the last request of his dying friend, Dr. Johnson, was that he would give up his Sunday painting and read his Bible. But though he sometimes relaxed in his strictness his reverence remained. “All this excellence,’ he said, in his notice of Moser, the Keeper of the Royal Academy, “had a firm foundation. He was a man of a sincere and ardent piety, and has left an illustrious example of the exactness with which the subordinate duties may be expected to be discharged by him whose first care is to please God.” Such was the creed of Reynolds in 1783; and with his simple mind and sweet disposition, we might be sure that he had never relinquished the faith in which he had been trained by his father. * He ‘. from the beginning of his malady,' said Burke, ‘a distinct view of his dissolution,’ and the peaceful hope with which he looked forward to the consummation continued with him to the last. He died on the evening of Feb. 23, 1792.
He had requested that he might be buried, without expense, in St. Paul's cathedral. Burke and the other executors were of opinion that the brilliant era he had created in art demanded a public funeral. His body was removed to the academy at Somerset House, and on Saturday, March 3, a long procession of men of eminence and rank followed the remains of the great and good President to the tomb. The shops were closed, and a vast concourse of people lined the streets, and thronged the houses. ‘Everything,’ wrote Burke, ‘turned out fortunately for poor Sir Joshua from the moment of his birth to the hour I saw him laid in the earth. Never was a funeral of ceremony attended with so much sincere concern of all sorts of people.’