20. Reynolds's Triumph

Object type: Fresco of Galatea, surrounded by tritons and nymphs

Location: Villa Farnesina, Rome.

© Image via Wikiart, public domain.


Sometime in 1789, the portraitist Joshua Reynolds (see also Exhibit 21) got his hands on a Triumph of Galatea, which he believed to have been by the Italian master painter Giulio Romano.  Reynolds was known to be especially on the lookout for scarce paintings by his Italian predecessors.  Over the last years of his life, using the fortune he assembled through painting the portraits of the leading lights of his age, Reynolds assembled the finest collection of Italian renaissance paintings not owned by a king or a state.  But with this painting, as he is known to have done with others, he did something which struck many of his contemporaries as peculiar.  Once he got his hands on it, he took it to pieces, scraping and scrubbing all the way back to the outline.  Having reduced it to almost bare boards, he worked on it for several days, returning it to something like its original shape.  When it was sold, at his death, the catalogue announced it once again as "an undoubted picture" of Giulio Romano.  The painting is now lost, but when last entered the print record in the early 19th century, it was still being sold as a Giulio, though anyone might naturally wonder if it shouldn't in truth be called a Reynolds.

Reynolds, his first biographer tells us, was apt to treat old paintings in this way.  What was he up to?  More than one of his contemporaries considered a willful act like this to be little short of murder.  But others admired Reynolds's pursuit of his craft, for, among other things, Reynolds was meaning to encounter his predecessors on their own ground, through their works.  He was, in other words, after the secrets of their studios, an experimenter with the chemistry of color and shade; this much has been traced in a brilliant short essay by Matthew Hunter ("Reynolds's 'Nice Chymistry'").  The Italian masters knew a thing or two about the application of color, and Reynolds was determined to learn it for himself.

With this Galatea, however, Reynolds was after something slightly different, something beyond color and form.  Color, Reynolds knew from Jonathan Richardson, was clearly an indispensable part of painting, but it wasn't the essential thing.  Painting, by the account that Reynolds inherited, was about the communication of ideas (see also Exhibit 5), and these ideas weren't to be found in tricks of color or of the application of paint.  They were to be found in an artist's "conception," the sponsoring spark and motivating principle that arranged masses of paint.  The conception was was prompted an art-object, just as it was the critical thing that lurked in the finished product.

Reynolds was a lecturer, as well as a painter, and the conception emerged as one of the critical objects of his concern, a special topic of discussion to which he returned repeatedly.  Among the painters richest in their conceptions, Reynolds remarked, and in the purity with which they expressed ideas, were Raphael and his most successful student: Giulio Romano.  It seems clear, therefore, that in the first strokes of the outlines obscured by paint, Reynolds hoped to plumb some of the secrets of Romano's mind, perhaps even making is way, via that conduit, to the mind of his Master, Raphael Sanzio.

There is of course much more to be said: on the relationship of Reynolds's understanding of the creative process to the container-like mind; on Reynolds's understanding of the writings and paintings of his predecessors, and how he cobbled them together into his own written and painted work.  Some of these threads are pursued in the book, The Mind is a Collection.  For now, I only want to say a few words about why a Galatea would have prompted Reynolds's mad quest.  What was it about Reynolds's painting, which even a studio apprentice judged to be a picture of little merit, that seized Reynolds's mind and caused him to pursue its idea?

One way of answering this question is to return to the painting that it must have reminded Reynolds of.  We may be certain that the painting, which might or might not have been by Giulio, was determined to be a Triumph of Galatea because it reminded Reynolds of the fresco, which he saw and studied, in the Villa Farnesina in Rome.  This fresco, which came at a transformative time in Raphael's career, was the first of its kind.  A "triumph" is a procession, especially in which the principle figure is being borne along.  Triumphs had been painted of Roman generals, and of Venus, but no-one had thought to paint a triumph of a minor sea-nymph, who was mostly famous for the story of the transformation of her lover, Acis, into a mountain stream.  

Historically, the focus of the myth of Galatea is on the elemental human passions. Galatea was the nymph betrothed to Acis but desired by Polyphemus.  Acis was a handsome shepherd; Polyphemus was the same rough Cyclops later vanquished by Odysseus.  Polyphemus, in a fit of rage, slays his rival suitor, smashing Acis with a fragment of a mountain.  The etiological tale is sealed when Galatea converts his river of blood into the stream that bears his name. From nothing, then, something: from death, a spring or fountain.  And when Galatea entered into the literary record, it was usually as part of a story of passion and its destructive consequences.  But Raphael was attracted to a different aspect of the tale; Raphael paints Galatea being borne away from the scene of her sadness and into a life of retirement.  The Triumph of Galatea was not a theme before Raphael painted it; Ovid mostly demurs, and the apotheosis in later relations generally gets little more than the attention due to a necessary denouement. After Raphael, however, the apotheosis clearly becomes the critical thing; and so paintings of the triumph from the succeeding years and centuries are all clearly based less on a mythic tradition, of which there is none, than on Raphael’s innovative arrangement of figures, Raphael’s invention, or, not to put too fine a point on it, what would later come to be called his “conception.”

I make such a point of this because Galatea's choice, her turn from the violence of the passions towards a life of the mind, is mirrored in the painting.  It isn't just that Galatea floats, serene, her mind on something else, through a riot of swirling bodies and a chaos of water.  It is also that her eye is clearly on something else; she sees conceives something that we don't.  That is, it is a painting about isolating ideas from crude material.  It came at a moment in Raphael's career when he was likewise attempting to forge a style that could relay ideas through the arrangement and juxtaposition of figures.  This style is what is now called Mannerism.  Raphael was in other words pioneering the style that would be so important to Reynolds, and the Triumph of Galatea, in turning from the physical world towards the abstract and ideal, was a record of Raphael's own triumph as he attempted a similar transition.

There is one last thing to be said, a habit or approach that binds Reynolds, in his studio, to Laurence Sterne in his study (Exhibit 21), or William Hunter in his anatomy theater (Exhibit 19).  It is their sense that a conception can only be reached after it happens, can only be captured by backing up to something that had been missed.  They were each, in their different ways, after something absolutely new, conceptions of different sorts; and each recognized the fundamental problem of the conception, that it can't be witnessed as it is happening, but only after it has occurred.  Each therefore adopts the same strategy; each puts things in reverse, running time backwards, scrubbing the panel back to blankness, in a wild effort to find the sponsoring spark and generative speck that resides there.