March - Horace Walpole on Samuel Cooper

Regular readers will be aware of my ebook about Sir Anthony Carlisle. Research for this has been fascinating and concentrates upon 18C medical and social literature. If any reader has an interest in 18C or 19C history, I would love them to read it. However, during ongoing research, it is easy to get distracted by other social comment, such as a letter about miniature painting written by Horace Walpole (a distant cousin of Carlisle's wife).

Walpole's letter below, written to The London Magazine in February 1764, is the origin of a famous quotation, "If a glass could expand Cooper's pictures to the size of Vandyck's, they would appear to have been painted for that proportion."

"Strictures on the Merit of Cooper, a Miniature Painter in the Reign 0f Char. II and on the Characters of Oliver Cromwell, and the Earl of Strafford. By Mr Walpole
Samuel Cooper owed great part of his merit to the works of Vandyck, and yet may be called an original genius; as he was the first who gave the strength and freedom of oil to miniature. The works of (Oliver a contemporary miniature painter) are touched and retouched with such careful fidelity, that you cannot help perceiving they are nature in the abstract; Cooper's are so bold that they seem perfect nature, only of a less standard. Magnify the former, they are still diminutively conceived. If a glass could expand Cooper's pictures to the size of Vandyck's, they would appear to have been painted for that proportion. If his portrait of Cromwell could be so enlarged, I don't know but Vandyck would appear less great by the comparison. To make it fairly, one must not measure the Fleming by his most admired piece, cardinal Bentivoglio. The quick finesse of eye in a florid Italian writer was not a subject equal to the protector: but it would be an amusing trial to balance Cooper's Oliver and Vandyck's lord Stratford. To trace the lineaments of equal ambition, equal intrepidity, equal art, equal presumption, and to compare the skill of the masters in representing the one exalted to the height of his hopes, yet perplexed with a command he could scarce hold, did not dare to relinquish, and yet dared to exert; the other dashed in his career, willing to avoid the precipice, searching all the recesses of so great a soul, to break his fall, and yet ready to mount the scaffold with more dignity than the other ascended the throne. This parallel is not a picture drawn by fancy; if the artists had worked in competition, they could not have approached nigher to the points of view in which I have traced the characters of their heroes.

Cooper with so much merit had two defects. His skill was confined to a mere head; his drawing even of the neck and shoulders so incorrect and untoward, that it seems to account for the numbers of his works unfinished. It looks as if he was sensible how small a way his talent extended. This very poverty accounts for the other, his want of grace. A signal deficiency in a painter of portraits, yet how seldom possessed. Bounded as their province is to a few tame attitudes, how grace atones for want of action! Cooper, content, like his countrymen, with the good fense of truth, neglected to make truth engaging. Grace in painting seems peculiar to Italy. The Flemings and the French run into opposite extremes. The first never approach the line, the latter exceed it, and catch at most but a lesser species of it, the genteel, which if I were to define I should call the familiar grace, as grace seems an amiable degree of majesty. Cooper's women, like his model Vandyck's, are seldom very handsome. It is Lely alone that excuses the galantries of Charles II. He painted an apology for that Asiatic court.

Cooper died in London in 1672, aged 63."

No comments:

Post a Comment