Devis's 'informal' family portraits
That marriage of portraiture and genre painting - the English 18-century ''conversation piece,'' or family portrait - is sometimes described as ''informal.'' Looking at the works of Arthur Devis - today considered one of the notable exponents of this type of picture - the word seems strangely inappropriate.Skip to next paragraph
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It is clear what is meant: Compared with the heroic baroque portraits of Van Dyck and his 17th-century followers, such modest paintings of middle-class patrons, carefully arranged in house or country settings, do not seem pretentious. But informal?
Devis and the conversation piece have received increased attention recently. In 1980 the Yale Center for British Art made him the central figure of an exhibition on the conversation piece.
Now he is almost the exclusive subject of a major show, with loans from Yale and private and public collections in Britain: ''Polite Society by Arthur Devis.'' The exhibition recently completed a showing at the Harris Art Gallery and Museum here in Preston and now will go to the National Portrait Gallery, London, Nov. 25 through Jan. 29, 1984.
The phrase ''polite society'' summarizes Devis's paintings. Too, his world seems altogether remote from ours. In certain ways, however, as the show's catalog makes evident, they cannot be taken as accurate representations even of the society they apparently depict.
Steven V. Sartin, in an essay on his life and art, argues that ''there is a degree of dissimulation (absence of exact imaging) in the paintings,'' but adds that ''this was perfectly well understood and accepted by whoever commissioned them at the time,'' although over two centuries it ''has been forgotten.''
Obviously we cannot see Devis's art in the same light as did his contemporaries. It is apparent, however, that he was not especially innovative and not an artist of burning ambition.
A comparison with the previous generation's genius, Hogarth, indicates the unadventurous range of Devis's subject matter. In fact, he worked within such restraints that it is hard not to see his style as a kind of instant convention - almost as formula painting. Next to contemporary conversation painters like Hayman or Highmore, or even Gainsborough's master, the French artist Gravelot, Devis's figures look stilted and his compositions contrived. Interestingly, it is to early Gainsborough, in his portraits of Suffolk gentry, that he comes closest. But unlike that astonishing artist, Devis developed very little: He may have stretched the boundaries of his style, but he never radically broke through them.
As for ''dissimulation,'' he was not, for instance, above such devices as clothing unconnected sitters in different pictures in the same dress, or providing them with very similar postures.
On occasion they might be shown seated or standing in identical houses, though living at opposite ends of the country. He had recourse to manuals of ''genteel behaviour'' to suggest suitable poses, and to architectural pattern books for Palladian interiors which were, at times, more imposing or fashionable than his clients' actual homes. Clearly he was catering to their aspirations.