Reynolds vs Fielding (avec version française)

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Over the course of his tenure as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave a series of Discourses, one a year, on the occasion of the annual prizegiving in December. These speeches were not easy to compose for a number of reasons: first, as delivered by the president of a relatively young institution, they tended to be seen as statements of policy; second, his audience would have consisted of artists ranging from the level of neophytes right up to established professionals, and few topics would interest them all. On 11th December 1786 (Discourse XIII), however, Reynolds hit a particularly rich seam of material, with the proposition, ill-expressed, that “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

There is not space to explore at length how Reynolds does this, ranging across poetry, drama, architecture and more; rather, the president’s comments on the theatre will be briefly laid out for analysis here. One  instructive parallel drawn, for example, between the stage and the canvas is that both have ‘high’ and ‘low’ modes, where the latter “follows nature” and the former “departs from it”. In the theatre, you thus have comedy which follows nature by depicting the foibles of everyday life, whilst tragedy departs from nature by being more stylised and excessive than quotidian existence in order to engage with deeper questions of human nature. After making this point, Reynolds then points out that a failure to realise this distinction between the imitations of high and low art is evident in a celebrated passage of Fielding’s Tom Jones (found here)

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds attacks Fielding by showing that it is incorrect to think of acting in terms of ‘deception’. Instead, the real skill of such actors is not that they deceive but that, in high tragic drama at least, they depart from nature and still captivate the theatregoer. After all, it is imperative that, when one is performing, “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding is wrong to show Partridge as the one tricked by Garrick, since Partridge’s ignorance of the stage would have made him supersensible to Garrick’s departures from absolute mimicry that the theatre and traditions of tragedy require. Instead, it is only the more educated members of the audience, those who “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations” that would experience such emotional engagement. Counter-intuitively, only the most sophisticated are subject to delusion, an argument that both justifies the high-class credentials of some of Reynolds’ own fantastical paintings and suggests that the illusions of the actor are less morally-problematic than they might otherwise appear, since those most subject to them are of a class sufficient to look after themselves.

To return to the attack on Fielding, there is much to be said in defence of this section. One might point out, for instance, that the resemblance between the ignorant Partridge and the theatrical connoisseur may well have been intentional ironic social commentary and not a misunderstanding of the principle that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” After all, Fielding himself, for all his fame as a novelist, began his literary career as the most successful playwright of the early eighteenth century.

Version française: Reynolds contre Fielding

Tout au long de sa présidence de la Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds prononça tous les ans un ‘Discours’ lors de la remise des prix en décembre. Ces discours étaient très difficiles à composer pour plusieurs raisons. D’abord, on avait tendance à considérer les propos tenus publiquement par le président d’une institution relativement jeune comme des déclarations de sa politique. Ensuite, son public était composé d’artistes de tous niveaux et il fallait trouver un sujet qui les intéresserait tous. Le 11 décembre 1786 (Discourse XIII), Reynolds trouva cependant un sujet particulièrement riche dans l’idée (mal exprimée) que “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

Je n’ai pas la place ici d’explorer en détail comment Reynolds réalise cette ambition à travers la poésie, le drame, l’architecture et d’autres disciplines. A la place, je souhaite analyser brièvement les commentaires du président sur le théâtre. Il propose, par exemple; un parallèle instructif entre la scène et la toile, dans la mesure où toutes deux ont des genres hauts et bas, où le bas “follows nature” et le haut “departs from it”. Au théâtre, on a ainsi la comédie qui imite la nature en montrant les manies quotidiennes, tandis que la tragédie s’éloigne de la nature par son style moins naturel pour réfléchir à des questions plus profondes sur la nature humaine. Après avoir établi cela, Reynolds indique un passage de Tom Jones qui échoue à réaliser cette distinction entre style haut et style bas.

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds critique Fielding en montrant qu’il est incorrect de penser le jeu théâtral en termes de ‘deception’ (tromperie). Au contraire, le talent de tels acteurs ne consiste pas dans la tromperie mais, du moins dans la grande tragédie, à s’éloigner de la nature tout en captivant le spectateur. Il est impératif, quand on joue, que “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding a tort de montrer Partridge comme celui qui est trompé par Garrick, puisque l’ignorance de Partridge concernant le théâtre l’aurait rendu très sensible à la manière – requise par la tradition théâtrale – dont Garrick s’éloigne du simple mimétisme. Au lieu de cela, seuls les membres les plus éduqués du public, ceux qui “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations”, se seraient autant investis émotionellement . De façon contre-intuitive, seuls les spectateurs les plus sophistiqués se trompent. Cet argument justifie l’élitisme des toiles non-naturalistes de Reynolds et suggère que les illusions produites par l’acteur sont moins gênantes sur le plan moral qu’elles pourraient le sembler, puisque ceux qui y sont le plus sujets sont suffisamment cultivés pour en avoir conscience.

Pour en revenir à l’attaque contre Fielding, il y aurait beaucoup à dire pour la défense de ce passage. On peut signaler, par exemple, que la ressemblance entre l’ignorant Partridge et le spectateur averti  pourrait bien avoir été intentionnellement ironique, et non pas l’effet d’une mauvaise compréhension du principe selon lequel “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” Après tout, Fielding lui-même aussi célèbre qu’il fût comme romancier, avait commencé sa carrière littéraire comme le dramaturge le plus apprécié  du début du dix-huitième siècle.


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