Jean André Rouquet (1701—1758) published a charming work, The Present State of the Arts in England, in 1755. Rouquet’s survey, rendered in his delightful and inimitable style, offers a penetrating, if personalized, view of the art world in London in the middle of the 18th century. Here is an extract giving his analysis of Sir Godfrey Kneller and his effect on English portrait painting.
We have already made mention, that till very lately painting had been practiced in England hardly by any but foreigners. Sir Godfrey Kneller, the last of those who settled there, died in 1726, and left five hundred portraits unfinished, for which he had been paid half the money beforehand. The artists in that country never speak of him but with admiration. He painted with a surprising quickness; his pencil was bold, his manner of designing great and noble, but less exact than becomes a portrait painter. You was not to expect he would give you a very just resemblance, but he knew how to supply this defect by a particular gracefulness, and especially by a remarkable simplicity, which has the greatest charms in the eye of an Englishman. By these qualifications he attained a prodigious reputation, which supplied the place of abilities, when he had too much business to shew them. This is what gave him a opportunity of making a great fortune, notwithstanding his fastuous expence. The King made him one of those knights of whom we have already taken notice.
Kneller was in every respect a difficult pattern to follow; and yet all the English painters would fain imitate him, would fain adopt his manner. He painted with an amazing quickness, without any appearance of study, and oftentimes at the first stroke. This set them all upon painting quick, tho’ they were far from obliged to it by the multiplicity of their occupations. Several were so affected, as not to cover the whole canvas, that is in those parts where its teint and its colour might answer the purpose, because Sir Godfrey Kneller had done so. They carried their enthusiasm so far as to attempt to distinguish very wretched pieces by the ridiculous merit of having been done at the first stroke. Kneller always drew his pictures square, but this was a vicious affectation, since it is not founded in nature: the others would fain give the same figure to their rough and careless draughts. Kneller had been obliged to have his draperies done by other hands, and his avarice always made him prefer those who would undertake it cheapest. Hence the drapery of his portraits was so very bad, as hardly to be imagined. And when his friends reproach’d him with this carelessness, and endeavoured to make him sensible of the injury which such performances might do to his reputation, he used to make answer that they were too bad to hurt him or ever go down to posterity under his name.
And yet his wretched drapery was likewise imitated by some artists. Such absurdities plainly shew, how dangerous it is to think of any other imitation than that of nature. The passion of copying Sir Godfrey, even to his greatest defects, did not raise any body to the same reputation. On the contrary, the public complained, that there were no more painters left in England; and the latter, by the character they gave of one another, endeavoured to enforce a truth which had been sufficiently established by their works. And yet the English continued to have their pictured drawn; for this nation, especially the ladies, make it one of their chief amusements.
Rouquet is tart, but without malice, and makes for good reading.