This is the second volume of Edgar Wind's selected papers, a companion to The Elegance of Symbols. Of all the scholars associated with the early development of the Warbur Institute Edgar Wind was the first to apply different theoretical principles to the study of English Art, above all in his early study of English portraiture, now a classic art history text. As the seminal essay, it gives title to the present volume, and is here translated into English for the first time. In this essay, which marked a change of direction in Wind's own development, he argues that two opposing styles of portraiture, exemplified in the art of Gainsborough and Reynolds, can be related to the different notions of humanity subscribed to by the philosophers David Hume and James Beattie. Other important studies, also reprinted here, make this volume an excellent resource to Wind's tremendous contributions to art history.
Allan Ramsay's Enlightenment: or, Hume and the patronizing portrait
In 1932 Edgar Wind published "Humanitatsidee und heroisiertes Portrat in der englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts" while still a privatdozent at Hamburg University within the orbit of Aby Warburg's library and method. (1) Wind eventually settled on the more concise and agonistic title "Hume and the Heroic Portrait" for the projected English translation, which is now considered a foundational text in the critical history of British art. (2) Wind proposed that eighteenth-century British portraiture, at its best, shared a common cultural field with philosophical writing--a field on which differing conceptions of human nature could challenge and interrogate each other. In the second half of the eighteenth century especially, according to Wind, this contest was vigorous and revealing. Lined up on one side were the "heroic" moralists, including Samuel Johnson, James Beattie, and the theatrically grand portraits of Joshua Reynolds. The skeptics, particularly regarding a heroic view of human endeavor, faced them on the other side, led by David Hume and the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough.
With the exponential increase in British art historical writing that has taken place in the interim, Wind's polemical distinction between two philosophical viewpoints and their respective champions, Reynolds and Gainsborough, now appears overdrawn and historically reductive. Some of Wind's insights, however, remain as compelling as ever, with their anticipation of interdisciplinarity and their place within a Warburgian school of thought. (3) Historians of British art have greatly extended Wind's methodology by examining Georgian portraiture in terms of the class tensions, gender constructions, political ideologies, and ethnic prejudices that it reveals. (4) As Marcia Pointon has argued, these new lines of inquiry "open onto a politics of representation in which the historical human subject is not a separate entity from the portrait depiction of him or her, but part of a process through which knowledge is claimed and the social and physical environment is shaped." (5) It is in the light of this more expansive and socially constructed notion of representation, and the knowledge claimed through it, that I would like to return to one of the most provocative questions asked by Wind in "Hume and the Heroic Portrait": Was portraiture capable of engaging in serious philosophical debate?
In a crucial early passage in "Hume and the Heroic Portrait," Wind argued:
Portraiture shows this give and take between artists and philosophers
especially clearly. Attached to the painting of a portrait is a social
situation, in which the artist has to come to terms with an attitude,
that of his sitter, an attitude that will often be supported by
philosophical views, and which, should the sitter happen to be a
professional philosopher, will result in the artist producing--or
being obliged to produce--an argument in paint. (6)
The real focus of Wind's essay, however, turns out to be portraits of children and thespians, two subject categories particularly open to projection and manipulation--precisely the opposite of the philosophical sitter. When Wind does test his hypothesis, he pits Joshua Reynolds's heavily allegorized portrait of James Beattie (1773, University of Aberdeen) against Allan Ramsay's portrait of David Hume (Fig. 1). It is a stark contrast indeed, with even Wind admitting that "Reynolds's portrait of Beattie gives a very unfortunate idea of his style of heroic portraiture." (7) In such a comparison, Ramsay's portrait of Hume appears self-evidently restrained and transparently "humanistic."
I return to the beginning of Wind's argument, so to speak, to examine whether philosophers really could compel portraitists to construct "arguments in paint." Rather than Wind's hyperbolic dichotomy between Beattie and Hume, I will focus on two portraits initially conceived as a pair: Allan Ramsay originally painted the half-length portrait of Hume (Fig. 1) to serve as a companion piece to a slightly earlier portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Fig. 2). Significantly, Hume's "companion" piece was painted just as his friendship with Rousseau began to disintegrate and, worse, degenerate into a highly public "affair" in the English press. The "Hume-Rousseau affair" pivoted on the issue of royal patronage, a boon sought by Hume, desired yet ultimately declined by Rousseau, and monopolized by Ramsay (at least in the eyes of his fellow artists). (8) The quest for royal patronage effectively links the personal disagreement between Hume and Rousseau to a very real set of philosophical differences underlying their fight. Ramsay's paired portraits became active participants in this debate and material indices of the political and social capital necessary to play the patronage game. It was a game, I will argue, that contained a potent imperial dimension in the 1760s. For it was at the level of political philosophy, particularly as it related to the restive American colonies, that Rousseau, Hume, and Ramsay revealed some of their sharpest, most personally invested differences. By respecting just how profoundly Rousseau distrusted the patronizing structures around him and, conversely, how beneficent Hume and Ramsay deemed those political structures to be, we enable Ramsay's paired masterpieces to resume their debate.