More than a Romantic

NOBODY has written as understandingly about the art of Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) as the French painter Delacroix. He praised Bonington's virtually unrivaled ``lightness of execution, which particularly in watercolor makes his work, as it were, diamond-like; charming and seducing the eye, independently of the actual subject or imitation.'' This was no distant admiration from over the Channel: The two artists were close friends, even sharing a studio in Paris for a period, probably, in fact, at the time of this self-portrait.

Bonington, though born in Nottinghamshire, had moved with his parents to France in 1817, at the age of 15. By 1818 he was in Paris, and Delacroix later recalled their first meeting -- in the Louvre. He saw ``a tall youth in a short jacket silently painting studies in watercolor, usually Flemish landscapes. He was already astonishingly skillful in this genre, which at the time was an English novelty. . . .''

Strangely, however, it seems that a French artist had introduced Bonington to this ``English novelty,'' in Calais, where the Boningtons first settled. This was Louis Francia, who had just returned to his birthplace after a long time in England. There he had been directly influenced by the paintings of Girtin, the friend of Turner. Bonington's early watercolors of harbors, shipping, the sea, of churches and street scenes, were in the tradition of English ``topographical'' draftsmanship from which Girtin and Turner's art had grown.

Spontaneous ease and quick grasp of general tonal truth, however, instilled his work with a shining brilliance and vitality that justifiably continue to enchant his admirers and are very much his own. His entire output has perforce remained an expression of changeable, ambitious, and spirited youthfulness, because, like the poet Keats, he died in his 20s. He already had a considerable reputation in France, and it was becoming established in England. It has increased rather than waned since then, and today he is seen as a key figure of the early Romantic movement.

It is interesting to note, though, that even those who liked his work saw that its vigorous strengths could also, paradoxically, be weaknesses. An almost unthinking natural ability can have a doubtful side in an artist.

The English landscape painter Constable wanted to own one or two of Bonington's prints, but he was also critical of his dash and finish, suspicious that they came to him too superficially, without the study and discipline of the moral feeling he believed was integral to art.

And Delacroix himself, so generous in praise, confided in his Journal in 1853: ``I have always had a tendency to imitate naively using simple methods, and I used to envy the easy brush and coquettish touch of artists like Bonington. This man was full of feeling, but he was carried away by his skill, and this very sacrifice of the noblest qualities to a fatal facility has caused his work to sink in our estimation and has set upon it the imprint of weakness. . . .''

This was as much a retrospective censure of his own youthful attitudes as of Bonington. Elsewhere, however, he remembers that his friend's ``marvellous understanding of effects'' did not always mean that he was ``easily satisfied. On the contrary, he frequently repainted things that were completely finished and seemed wonderful to us. . . .''

Bonington's work, in fact, bears out that he was often able to put his dexterity at the service of an exacting vision. His characteristically Romantic historical set pieces -- like Delacroix he loved 16th- and 17th-century costumes, and was inspired by literature, by Shakespeare, Scott, the Arabian Nights -- display an increasingly considered approach to history paintings, the ``branch of art'' thought at that period to evince the highest seriousness. In landscapes and genre painting he can also achieve a balance between exciting immediacy and deep feelings. At his finest he is not a mere describer of surfaces, not just a splendidly economical stylist.

Recently acquired by the British Museum from the descendants of a friend and patron of the artist, the sepia self-portrait on the opposite page epitomizes a young Romantic artist's view of himself: It is simultaneously elegant and reticent, introspective yet self-regarding, sensitive but surprisingly cogent. Though it was painted with ``dash'' (certainly in everything below the chin and wrist), a considerable degree of tentative, investigative attention nevertheless went into the painting of that shadowy, Rembrandtesque face leaning so pensively on a hand. Portraiture was not one of Bonington's central interests. But this intense look at himself is a remarkable exception.

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