Arthur Devis's dreamworld

THERE is a certain kind of artist whose work, almost because of its limitations, seems to typify a period. With greater imaginative scope or stronger individualism, his art might have been more richly fed by the art of the past or more promotive of the future. Nevertheless, some such artists can reflect the fashions and manners of their contemporaries in ways that have lasting interest. Arthur Devis (1712-87) is in many respects an artist of this ilk. It would be fair to say that he was not an innovator. He might almost be considered a mid-18th-century equivalent of one of today's fashionable portrait photographers. And yet his work, forgotten for more than a century after his death, seems now to have a nicety and an economy, as well as a period flavor, that are oddly compelling.

Born in Preston, Lancashire, he worked in London -- though most of his clients continued to be landed gentry or nobility living outside the capital. His specialty was what has come to be known as the ``conversation piece'' -- a group portrait of a family posing in an indoor or outdoor setting. Such a mise en sc`ene in Devis's case was not necessarily based on his clients' actual house or park: Its purpose was not so much description as an indication of wealth or status, even when these were a matter of aspiration rather than fact. But Devis paradoxically paints his settings with detailed attention; they are not merely generalized backdrops.

His early training was as a landscape painter, and the lucid, tranquil picture of ``Henry Fiennes Clinton, Ninth Earl of Lincoln, with His Wife, Catherine, and Son, George,'' a fine example of his work, shows how effectively he could employ this acquired skill in his portraits. In fact the landscape is almost the subject of the painting -- a country house and its prospect, in which its owners are prominent but hardly dominant.

The postures, and, of course, the dress of his sitters, are obedient to the standards of etiquette and the fashions of the society that patronized him. All but the faces of his subjects were certainly painted from the dolls or ``lay figures'' that were standard equipment in the studios of 18th-century portrait painters -- even of such sophisticated artists as Reynolds and Gainsborough. They, however, disguised their use of such props, while Devis -- and this is where his limitations can almost be seen as assets -- actually found the rather stiff, unnatural articulations of these figures a source of aesthetic delight. The result is a period dreamworld, something not quite real; a mixture, attractive for its strangeness, of the naive and the elegant.

Elegance is certainly one of the characteristics of his paintings. The figures are (as in this example) often placed physically and psychologically separate from each other, and Devis knew how to calculate, with restraint and taste, a spacious composition. Lightness and delicacy are achieved by his uncanny (and perhaps not always deliberate) sense of interval, and also by his keenness for linear elements that recur in his paintings. In this case the threadlike leash with which the child loosely holds his greyhound, the legs and backs of the chairs, the slenderness of the dog itself, the circle of the tabletop, the deeply recessive perspective of path and river, and the wire-thin stems of the tall, distant trees immediately beyond the ninth Earl's tricorn hat, all add up to a consistent stylistic quirk and contribute to the overall, unified felicity of the picture.

Devis's contemporaries may have eventually come to find his ``naivet'e'' unacceptable. He was increasingly out of fashion in the last 20 years of his career. Lord John Cavendish, in one of the few known written comments on Devis during his lifetime, a letter of 1765, dismissed the ``genteel attitude'' of the artist's figures and their ``ingenious postures,'' as ``frightful.''

And yet today these traits seem attractive and even strangely expressive. It does not matter to us that comparison with the greater skills of the leading painters of his time made his kind of picturemaking outmoded. This is one of the advantages of hindsight. Another is that our form-consciousness, with such recent exponents of direct naivet'e as Le Douanier Rousseau firmly ensconced in it, sees qualities of considerable virtue and fascination in the unsophisticated. Presumably Devis himself would not have comprehended an appreciation of his work as ``primitive'' -- but then we don't need to worry about his self-respect interfering with the pleasure we find in his art.

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