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26 June, 2013
Sir David Wilkie
Today, we don't necessarily think of one type of art as being somehow better than another is--at least, not consciously. In art, as in many areas of life today, we have become, or are in the process of becoming, more and more tolerant of all things, tending to lump them together as opposed to making stereotypical value judgements. In the area of painting, if we want to see how far we've come along this line, we might recount the views of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the British Royal Academy (1768). As its first president, he ran the Academy as his own exclusive art club until his death in 1792. In his view, the greatest of all painting was history painting--grand historical or religious subjects, ennobling character, preferably lavishly dressed in fine period garb...or barring that, tastefully nude. Below that were domestic genre scenes followed by portraiture, landscapes, animals, still-lifes, and lastly, flowers. Quite a pecking order, and in effect, a ladder for would-be artists to climb as they studied, worked, and became more skilled.

If we had to consider a similar, modern-day pecking order, first of all, history painting, not only wouldn't be at the top, it wouldn't even be on the list at all. Number two, domestic genre, would be taken down several notches, to near the bottom, if indeed, it hand any standing either. Portraiture would probably rank number one, followed by various forms of Expressionism, then landscapes, probably still-lifes, animal painting, etc., with flowers still near the bottom, still continuing to get "no respect." As you can see, in today's world, certainly Reynold's list, as well as the one above, are what we might term "pretty dumb" in any case.

But two hundred years ago, there was very much a "ladder to climb" in terms of painted subject matter. Women and children started out painting flowers, still-lifes, then puppies and other pets; moved on at some point out into the landscape world around them; then to portraits of those who inhabited it, going about their daily lives; while their leaders "made history" and those artists at the top painted it. The would-be artist studied first from a local tutor, then attended a local university with an art department, and then, if he was good enough, the Royal Academy where he met and mirrored the demigod, Sir Joshua himself.

In 1785, in the small village of Cutts, Fife, in what is now Scotland, was born David Wilkie, the son of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. He was a talented lad, moving up Reynold's proverbial "ladder" very quickly by studying the prints of van Ostade and Teniers, first making a name for himself in genre painting. The English love this type of work, and paintings such as his 1812 Blind Man's Bluff are rich with anecdotal glimpses of early nineteenth century British life. It's a pub scene with all the tables and chairs stacked against one wall so that a sort of organised chaos might reign minus the threat of ruining the interior decor. My son and his friends now play a similar game they call "Marco Polo" in our pool.

In 1822, Wilkie finished an extraordinary street scene, combining lower-middle class genre painting with a touch of history in Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo. When it was displayed, the painting met with such popular and favourable response from all levels of British society, the Royal Academy was forced, for the first time, to show it behind a barricade. The Duke of Wellington, who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and commissioned the painting, found himself paying for it the enormous sum of 1,200 guineas. He chose to compensate Wilkie in cash rather than by cheque so that his banker wouldn't think him a "damned fool for paying such an outrageous sum for a painting."

Outrageous or not, the painting gained Wilkie another wrung up the ladder, a knighthood, and eventually the position as "painter-in-ordinary" to the king, William IV. This permitted Sir David to study abroad, the works of Rembrandt, Titian, and especially the genre subjects of the Spanish master, Velázquez. His pursuit of biblical subjects and scenes led him to the Holy Lands. On the way back, he succumbed to a fever and was buried at sea. Today, unfortunately, despite his popularity in his own time; parallel with the decline of genre painting in general, his work is largely forgotten. But his exceptional skills as a genre artist changed British art forever. Without realising it, his boosting the popularity of this type of work in England at the time poked a hole in the over-inflated Grand Manner of British history painting, nudging it from the top of the ladder, starting its decline to the benign oblivion it enjoys today.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
2 August 2000

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