RICHARD WILSON AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
THE preceding chapter has sketched the circumstances leading to the foundation of the Royal Academy, thenceforth to exercise so great an influence on British art. At the time of its establishment three great native painters flourished, and already stood high in the public estimation. They each became members of the new academy, one of them, Reynolds, its first president, and their marked genius had great influence during the period in which they painted, and left an impression on the school which is only just passing away.
These three eminent men, who began a new epoch in art, are Richard Wilson, to whom we shall devote this chapter, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. As the first-named was fifty-four years of age, the second forty-five, and the third forty-one, on the establishment of the Royal Academy, it is evident that neither their merits nor their defects can be attributed to its teaching. It affords some insight, too, into the nature of the patronage of art at that time in England that all the three began their career as portrait painters. Wilson lived by his portraits until his thirty-sixth year. Reynolds ended as he began. Gainsborough through life was largely indebted to portraiture for his income, and in the opinion of some of his contemporaries, as of our own, for his fame also. Two other portrait painters, eminent in their day, and considered at the top of their profession, were still in full practice--Thomas Hudson and Allan Ramsay. Jonathan Richardson had just withdrawn into a literary retirement. Of him Walpole says, 'that his men want dignity, his women grace', adding--a poor compliment to the artist!--'the good sense of the nation is characterized in his portraits'; and worse still: 'full of theory and profound reflections on art, he drew nothing well below the head, and was void of imagination. His attitudes, draperies and backgrounds are totally insipid and unmeaning'. It may be added that his mantle descended upon his pupil Hudson, who was all his master was, with a dash of insipidity instead of good sense. Allan Ramsay had been appointed the Court painter the year before the foundation of the Royal Academy. His unaffected manly portraits, though their merits do not rise higher, earned him this distinction. In the International Exhibition of 1862, his portrait of the Duke of